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Face It
Masked protesters fight face scans

The tech industry bears some of the blame for government surveillance

By Paul Coe Clark III

I regularly talk to executives at tech companies, and in general I find them friendly (at least, if you are not employed by their companies, and are thus exempt from the caste system of the modern corporation, which is more rigid than that traditionally found in India), intelligent and impressive. Usually, surveying the networks, services and technologies they have created, I am awed and vicariously proud.

At other times, unfortunately, I'm forced by their actions to consider them bottom feeders of the worst order: greedheads, cowards, fools and moral no-shows. I look on their works and despair.

Now is one of those times.

Several recent breaking news stories, all exposing massive, industry-enabled government surveillance of private citizens, were greeted with surprise in most quarters, but not at this desk, where I've regularly warned of the inevitable approach of such surveillance for years. My friends considered me a bit of a crank on the subject, and an alarmist to boot. The sort of massive electronic intrusion by government into the lives of citizens I was predicting could never happen in a free society, they said.

Well, it's becoming harder and harder to be an alarmist these days. The sorts of surveillance I was considered paranoid for predicting are no longer far-out theory, but fact. National, state and local governments, and in some cases private companies, are rolling out new systems to spy on law-abiding citizens daily. And the tech industry is aiding and abetting these practices, which are unworthy of a free society. Don't believe me? Try these on for size:

Tampa, Fla. became the first city in the nation to engage in routine facial monitoring of citizens. A network of 36 cameras, using the "FaceIt" technology of New Jersey-based Visionics Corp., scans pedestrians on city streets and uses biometrics software to compare their faces with a database of criminals. Other cities, including Virginia Beach, Virginia, already plan to install similar networks. This a nightmarish use of technology, for which the cities involved and Visionics should be condemned by all right-thinking people. Using such a network, the government can follow you down the street, knowing everywhere you go and everyone to whom you talk in public. A more Orwellian system is hard to imagine, and the constitutional implications are staggering. The First Amendment right of association, for example, is fairly meaningless when the government can scan, recognize and record everyone you talk to. The right to petition the government in public also is weakened. How many people will feel comfortable attending a protest rally if they know they are being scanned, identified and recorded?

Tampa citizens are reportedly reduced to wearing masks to avoid surveillance. Rubber Richard Nixon masks seem appropriate, and would also make the statement, "I am not a crook!"

I would predict, of course, that it's inevitable that such systems will compare pedestrian faces against digitized driver's-license photos -- giving the government knowledge of where everyone, not just criminals, is on the street at any given time. There is no point in predicting that, however, as it has already been proposed; cities in Florida, Colorado and elsewhere plan to do just that. A time-honored precept that is one of the glories of our legal system is that the government can't search or detain you or spy on you unless it has probable cause to think you've committed a crime. Such technology, if allowed by the courts, strips that backbone out of our jurisprudence utterly.

Washington, D.C. (my fair city), following up on its staggering financial success with cameras that issue citations for stop- light violations, is preparing to install a network of similarly automated radar guns to mechanically issue speeding tickets. The system, designed by Lockheed Martin IMS and expected to go into operation Aug. 1, is expected to generate 80,000 new speeding tickets a month in the District, which has a population of 570,000. Last year, for example, there were only 10,000 speeding tickets issued in the District, according to the Washington Times. The new cameras are expected to generate $160 million in revenue annually. In testing, they ticketed an average of 144 tickets an hour -- in other words, almost everyone who drove past them.

I've been ticketed by one of the stop-light cameras, and it's disconcerting. No defense is possible, because you get the ticket weeks or months after the alleged offense. It's impossible to remember the incident, impossible to explain circumstances (in cities, you are frequently FORCED to remain in an intersection after the light changes when people stop or pull out ahead of you), impossible to provide witnesses to rebut the allegation. No one has to testify against you, other than the camera. In short, there is no due process at all. The District's credibility was eroded by the discovery that some of the cameras were faulty (or deliberately set wrong), and had issued thousands of tickets to innocent drivers. The District decided it would be too much trouble to cancel them, so the drivers were stuck with the tickets -- and the increased insurance costs. There are reports nationwide of the cameras being adjusted so as to ticket drivers during the yellow light, and of cities shortening their yellow lights so as to generate more ticket revenue -- a dangerous practice.

The appeal of these systems to municipalities is clear, given the money involved. Suburban Montgomery County, Md., which has issued 54,000 camera tickets since 1999, plans to increase the red-light fine from $75 to $250, according to the Wall Street Journal. No surprise there. The systems' impact on safety, however, is debatable, and the judicial precedent they set deplorable.

Some car-rental companies are now tracking their cars with satellites via GPS -- and recording every time the car exceeds the speed limit, then slapping additional charges on rental bills. Acme Rent-a-Car, of New Haven, Conn., was charging $150 per instance -- a practice the state later found to be illegal, but only because the company had not clearly warned renters.

Mark my words, it's only a matter of time before we see bills in Congress to require tracking of all cars by GPS. I don't know if such a system is feasible (that would require a lot of satellite/ground station bandwidth), but it's bound to be proposed. Then the government would know not only how fast you are going, but where you are at any given time -- a fact it will shortly know from your cell phone anyway.

The U.S. Secret Service was caught using a New Hampshire-based company, Image Data LLC, as a front to build a national database of driver's license photographs -- surreptitiously and in possible violation of federal law. The company received $1.46 million in federal aid for the project, which was publicly announced as a system to fight credit-card fraud. In reality, the way-too-silent-partner, the government, wanted to use the database for law-enforcement purposes. Just think what a national, digitized database of every face in the country could do in combination with a national face-scanning system like Tampa's.

This is not a solitary instance. Every session, someone in Congress introduces a bill to require a national photo ID for every citizen. Fortunately, wiser heads have prevailed thus far. It's unlikely that they will do so indefinitely, however.

Massive surveillance systems and privacy violations like the ones above are usually rationalized by false analogies to other, more familiar forms of scrutiny. The process is very similar to the mythical one for cooking a live frog. If you put a frog in boiling water, the story goes, it will jump out. But if you put the frog in cold water, then gradually raise the temperature, it will stay in the boiling water until it dies.

Similarly, U.S. citizens are being slowly desensitized to surveillance. Spy systems are introduced in limited, easily rationalized circumstances then generalized into widespread use.

"I don't think it's that much different from getting your picture taking every time you use an ATM machine," Tampa City Councilman Bob Buckhorn said of the face-scanning system, according to the Associated Press. But you have a choice not to use an ATM; you have no choice of avoiding the public streets, and shouldn't be forced to do so to avoid government spying. Likewise, that system is compared to a cop on the beat standing on the corner looking for criminals. It's a false analogy; a beat cop doesn't have perfect recall or a database in his head of every known criminal -- much less of every law-abiding citizen. And he doesn't record the position and movements of each pedestrian the way a computer does.

It's a self-evident fact that corporations, as such, are amoral creatures. Not moral, not immoral -- just money-making and - spending organisms designed to scuttle along absorbing revenues like giant bacteria. There's almost no point in getting mad at them. We could wish, however, that some semblance of moral backbone would prevent companies from getting mixed up in schemes to deprive citizens of basic rights in a democracy.

If it were just a handful of oddball companies making esoteric biotech, it might not bother me so much. But mainstream telcos are up to their necks in the problem, and have been since the passage several years ago of the Community Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which requires pervasive, switch-level digital wiretapping capabilities throughout the public network. The problem worsened last year with the creation of the federal government's Carnivore packet-sniffing software, which, if installed (as it surely will be) on the servers of every major Internet-service provider, will give the government access to most of the e-mail traffic in the country.

The government claims that the new wiretapping systems only maintain old capabilities in the digital age. That is entirely untrue, as both systems expand those capabilities; greatly (in the case of CALEA) and massively (in the case of Carnivore).

I've talked to dozens of execs at telcos and ISPs about this issue over the years. To my knowledge, not a single telco has taken a stand against CALEA on moral grounds, choosing only to argue over who pays the costs of the system, and over implementation schedules. Most ISPs have taken the same route, caving in to government pressure. A brave few have protested having their servers used to spy on citizens, and deserve honor.

I'm not insensitive to the needs of law enforcement. I'm not insensitive to the carnage on our roads or to the problem of street crime. Having been mugged at gunpoint in my fair city only a few weeks ago, how could I be? But the American tradition, thank heavens, has never been to trade freedom for security. It's been left to totalitarian states to cut that deal.

"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety," Ben Franklin once said. Truer words were never spoken. More importantly, they usually get neither.

Don't allow the government, your servant rather than your master, in league with some elements of industry, to strip you of the rights that come with living in a free society. Support those tech companies creating privacy-protecting, rather than violating, technology. And protest these systems to your representatives and to the companies listed above.

Are you free men and women, or are you sheep -- or frogs?

Mediocre times produce the very worst that the world has to offer: Reagan, Bin Laden, Bush, Hussein, Sharon, and Blair. None but the feeble minded could draw inspiration from such a ghastly lineup of "leaders".

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