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How Privacy in America Went Virtually Extinct in Just a Decade

Unless we challenge the idea that we should concede our rights to protect our safety, it'll get even worse.
 
 
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We’ve come a long way since the 1880s when Sir Francis Galton, a British anthropologist and a cousin of Charles Darwin, first undertook the scientific study of fingerprints as a means of identification. Now, two centuries later, all information is digital, created, distributed and displayed as a series of 1s and Os. 

Today’s surveillance and tracking systems can (in principle) integrate infinite amounts of information: your location and identity via GPS and face recognition technology; video feeds from the cameras located down the street or across the globe; records from any and all databases; electronic communications like voice and emails. It’s all in the processors and the sky's the limit. 

Large server farms -- analysis centers -- operate throughout the country. They consist of huge “cloud” servers that aggregate and process the datasets through innumerable applications or programs. They process data from federal agencies and local governments as well as private companies, including commercial aggregators who sell personal information. 

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High-tech surveillance can best be described as 21st-century digital alchemy. It’s not clear how a suspicious activity report can generate either a timely warning; little hard data is available to evaluate the effectiveness. Nor do the entities backing the systems, government or private, provide detailed cost estimates of the building and operating fees of their programs in terms of foiling a single terrorist plot -- is there a cost-benefit analysis? The fog of post-9/11 allows the federal government to avoid detailing the true costs associated with the post-9/11 high-tech anti-terrorist mobilization. 

The fog of 9/11, a decade-plus later, also permits the popular acceptance of a new policing fiction: Americans must give up their privacy right to safeguard the nation … and enrich private contractors.

The surveillance state is moving aggressively, like the military-industrial complex did after WWII, to capture a huge chunk of federal and local government spending.  In the face of the ongoing U.S. economic restructuring, corporate America is banking on the surveillance cash-cow.

The 21st-century surveillance state is anchored in monitoring all digital communications. With the exception of unmediated, face-to-face conversations, little personal life exists outside of a digital sequence of 1s and 0s. Surveillance advocates believe their system can, for example, identify suspected terrorists and prevent an attack. Security pundits argue that facial recognition and other sophisticated software can identify a terrorist; that specially equipped tollbooths and police cars can read passing license plates and cut down on stolen cars. Bold claims are backed with little hard evidence.

The earlier boundaries that characterized “privacy,” like one’s home, mail or phone calls, are so oh-so 20th century. Digital privacy is a thing of the past. Our online presence, our every keystroke, our voice communications, our every commercial exchange, our very digital identity has become a quasi-public characteristic monitored by government and corporate entities. Big Brother has become America’s new normal. 

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Two surveillance systems that have recently been in the news, TrapWire and Domain Awareness System (DAS), point to the future of the surveillance state.  

First, the isolated element (e.g., the fingerprint, the mug shot) is being integrated into a complex digital profile. Yet, whether a suspicious person or object (e.g., car, container), 21st-century surveillance is grounded in state-of-the-art guesswork.

Second, these systems represent two different business models; one of government use of private product (TrapWire), the other a joint venture between a city government and a private corporation (DAS). This may suggest the next phase in the development of capitalism’s corporate state: from regulator to partner. But most of all, TrapWire and DAS exemplify how the state, at both the federal and local levels, is increasing its power to track the lives of ordinary Americas. 

TrapWire correlates video surveillance with other data, including criminal and terrorist watch lists, facial recognition profiles, license plate information, stolen vehicles reports and other event data.  Its apparently most break-through feature is predictive capabilities designed to detect patterns of pre-attack surveillance.

Abraxas Corp., a Virginia-based company, developed TrapWire in 2004; it was acquired by San Diego-based Cubic Corp. in 2010 for $124 million in cash. Justin Ferguson, a security researcher, discovered reference to the program in dozens of emails amidst a stash of 5 million emails “liberated” from Texas-based Strategic Forecasting (Stratfor) by Anonymous and published by WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks released some 5 million Strategic Forecasting emails in February 2012 and, within hours, was shut down by unidentified hackers. It suffered a nearly-fatal DDOS (distributed denial-of-service) attack. It argued that the attack was orchestrated by those who didn't want the Stratfor TrapWire emails released.  As Wikileaks reported, "Attacks on wikileaks-press.org escalated after Wikileaks retweeted links to our mirrors of leaked files from WikiLeaks ... on a newly discovered mass surveillance program known as TrapWire." 

DAS has a very different lineage.  It was developed as a commercial partnership between the New York City Police Department and Microsoft at an estimated cost of $30 to $40 million. According to New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, “We’re not your mom and pop police department anymore.” The city will get 30 percent of the profits on Microsoft sales of the system to other cities and countries.  At the official launch ceremony, Bloomberg boasted, “We are in the next century. We are leading the pack.”

With DAS, investigators can track individuals or incidents (e.g., a suspicious package) through live video feeds from some 3,000 CCTV cameras, 2,600 radiation substances detectors, check license plate numbers, pull up crime reports and cross-check all information against criminal and terrorist databases.

These two programs add to a growing arsenal of high-tech capabilities being implemented by both federal and local governments in a ceaseless war against terrorism.  

“TrapWire is a technology solution predicated upon behavior patterns in red zones to identify surveillance,” said Stratfor Vice President for Intelligence Fred Burton, in a 2009 email. “It helps you connect the dots over time and distance.” Using cameras, sensors and other digital-data capture devices and diverse databases, TrapWire aggregates data at central surveillance points in major U.S. cities and landmarks. If someone is observed repeatedly taking photos or videos at a high-risk location or a car repeatedly passes such a site, the system captures the information. The digital data is then encrypted and nearly instantaneously disseminated to local sites where they are aggregated with other intelligence programs. 

Some years ago, the DHS undertook a trial of TrapWire in Washington, DC and Seattle.  The trial, which costs $832,000, linked 15 surveillance cameras, but officials reportedly ended the trial because the program did not seem promising. 

Nevertheless, the program was adopted in one form or another in many U.S. cities as well as in Ottawa, Canada. For example, TrapWire is a part of the Los Angeles Police Department’s iWatch monitoring system; New York’s “See Something, Say Something” program and reportedly links 500 cameras; the Washington Regional Threat and Analysis Center, DC’s fusion center; a Las Vegas’ database linking surveillance systems of most resorts and the fusion center; the State of Texas spent a half a million dollars with an additional annual licensing fee of $150,000 for it; and the U.S. Army tested it at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall and Fort Meade.

DAS seems a mini version of TrapWire. “We can track where a car associated with a murder suspect is currently located and where it’s been over the past several days, weeks or months,” noted Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. “This is a system developed by police officers for police officers.”

DAS integrates NYPD- and private-operated CCTV camera feeds, license plate data and radiation readings as well as police and intelligence reports. Cameras operate 24/7 and are principally deployed in the Financial District, midtown Manhattan and at strategic transportation points like bridges and tunnels.  

According to the police only public areas are monitored and facial recognition technology is not used. Video clips are maintained for 30 days and are ostensibly then deleted … unless the NYPD chooses to preserve them. License plate data is kept for five years and unspecified “environmental data” is preserved indefinitely. 

Neal Ungerleider, writing at Fast Company, was surprised while visiting the DAS command-and-control center in lower Manhattan. He found that there were designated places for the representatives from the Federal Reserve, the Bank of New York, Goldman Sachs, Pfizer and CitiGroup. He did not identify places for the ACLU.

David Rosen is regular contributor to AlterNet, Brooklyn Rail, Filmmaker and IndieWire. His website is DavidRosenWrites.com. He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.

 

 
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