Selling you out: Mass public surveillance for corporate gain

Selling you out: Mass public surveillance for corporate gain
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When most people think of mass surveillance databases, the first thing that comes to mind is the government or an agency like the NSA. But the government is not the only one in the business of creating massive surveillance databases.

Private companies have built businesses around the concept of creating huge databases of aggregated data collected through mass public surveillance. This is a form of “surveillance capitalism” where the focus is on monetizing new forms of data extraction rather than creating goods. The money is made, in large part, through charging a fee to federal, state, and local law enforcement to have access to the data and analytical tools to analyze all the information collected by these companies.

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This model of business has been used with the collection of license plate data across the country and the monitoring of social media. It portends a future where our every movement, online and offline, is tracked, aggregated, and analyzed by corporations to provide law enforcement ready-made access to mass surveillance databases.

Earlier this year, it was reported that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracted with Vigilant Solutions to gain access to the company’s nationwide license plate recognition (LPR) database. Vigilant Solutions is the leader in LPR data for law enforcement and has more than 5 billion detections of license plate. If you have a car, it is more than likely that a record of the car’s license plate number along with the exact time and GPS location has been recorded — probably multiple times.

License plate data is collected through various means. Vigilant Solutions and its partner, Digital Recognition Network (DRN) employ Licensed Fleet Operators that drive specific routes collecting LPR data. Data is often collected from toll booths or other strategic locations. Many law enforcement agencies have their own LPR tools, often placed on the back of patrol cars, collecting data that is added to Vigilant Solutions’ database. Seventy percent of police departments in the U.S. are using LPR technology.

But out in public is not the only place this type of mass surveillance occurs, it happens with even greater ease within the public spaces of the digital realm.

The rise in social media has led to various attempts to monetize all the data it creates — most notably with targeted advertising. This has prompted several companies to aggregate massive amounts of social media data and develop analytical tools to scrutinize the information and offer these data and tools to law enforcement. Digital Stakeout, Geofeedia, and LifeRaft are just a few of the various social media monitoring products used by law enforcement and other government entities to analyze billions of data points created by social media.

These products collect data from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Google+, Foursquare, Reddit, Tumblr, Periscope, among others. The result, as with LPRs, is the surveillance of millions of innocent people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing. This type of mass surveillance undermines our democracy and is only possible because protections to safeguard individual privacy in public have not kept up with the removal of economic and technological limitations to mass public surveillance.

U.S. laws generally don’t protect privacy in public because, until more recently, such laws were not needed. The courts have determined we have a reasonable expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment, but this has not been extended to public spaces. The thought being that if you did something illegal in public and a police officer happen to see that then you can’t claim a reasonable expectation of privacy to protect yourself against the law prosecuting you for what an officer happened to witness you do. The possibility that almost everything you do in public would be collected and analyzed was not part of the analysis when the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test was articulated several decades ago.

Now, companies like to claim there is no expectation of privacy in publicly available data and they are essentially free to do whatever they want with your data. Vigilant Solutions tries to bolster this argument with the claim that license plate numbers contain no personally identifiable information. I would beg to differ, and documents obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) from the FBI show that the FBI’s lawyers think license plate data is personally identifiable information too.

This idea that there is absolutely no privacy in public, taken to its logical end, has potentially grave consequences for our democracy in a time when finding ways to monetize data is the norm. Privacy in public is essential to realize freedom of thought, freedom of association, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression among other liberties we hold dear. A world where everywhere you go publicly, everything you say online, every person you can be associated with, and every expression of your religion or disagreement with government policy can be collected and analyzed is a world that is going to look a lot like some of the dystopias portrayed in science fiction.

What happens when companies decide to leverage other new and advancing technologies to do what was done with LPR systems? How are you going to feel about a company leveraging all the public facing security cameras and facial recognition technology to create a database akin to the LPR one, where every time your face is spotted by a camera it is logged with a timestamp, geolocation, and perhaps who you are with?

Companies will seek whatever means allowable to turn data into profits and creating mass surveillance databases for law enforcement access is a model already proven lucrative by the LPR industry. The Baltimore Police previously tested a service provided by company called Persistent Surveillance Systems where a plane equipped with various cameras would capture and log what was occurring in a 30 square mile area. The largest provider of police body cameras, Axon (formerly Taser), wants to give the body cameras away for free, presumably to collect all the data they record and sell access to the data and services like facial recognition capabilities—a capability Axon is actively working on.

The focus on mass public surveillance to address various issues not only undermines our democracy, it’s a crutch for bad policies. Surveillance is never going to be a solution to the problems societies face and is largely a distraction, diverting money away from alternative solutions. Implementing policies that focus on access to quality education, housing, and health care as well as addressing wealth inequality would go a lot further to address the issues public mass surveillance claims it can help with. When we don’t respect individual privacy, surveillance becomes an easy, default “solution” and our liberties and our democracy suffer for it.

It’s time to take back our privacy and demand better solutions than treating everyone like a suspect. 

Jeramie D. Scott is the Electronic Privacy Information Center's (EPIC) National Security Counsel and Director of the EPIC Domestic Surveillance Project. His work focuses on privacy issues implicated by domestic surveillance programs with a particular focus on drones, cybersecurity, biometrics, and social media monitoring. Follow him on Twitter @JeramieScott.