Surveillance Nation

Adam L. Penenberg
Wired (cover story), December 2001

WITHIN HOURS OF THE ATTACKS ON THE WORLD TRADE center and the Pentagon, as federal officials shut down airports and US strategists began plotting a military response, Attorney General John Ashcroft was mobilizing his own forces. In meetings with top aides at the FBI’s Strategic Information and Operations Center-during which the White House as well as the State and Defense departments dialed in via secure videoconference-Ashcroft pulled together a host of antiterrorism measures. Days later, the attorney general sent to Capitol Hill a bill that would make it easier for the government to tap cell phones and pagers, give the Feds broad authority to monitor email and Web browsing, strengthen money-laundering laws, and weaken immigrants’ rights. There were whispers of a national identity card and of using face-recognition software and retinal scans at airports and in other public spaces. And high above it all would sit an Office of Homeland Security, run by former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, who would report directly to the Oval Office.

Such talk usually generates fractious debate between privacy hawks and security hounds. By now, most of us can recite the familiar Nightline arguments and counterarguments. But this time the acrimony has been muted. The terrorist assault on America shifted the balance between privacy and security. What was considered Orwellian one week seemed perfectly reasonable-perhaps even necessary-the next. Politicians who routinely clash were marching in lockstep. “When you’re in this type of conflict-when you’re at war-civil liberties are treated differently,” said Senate Republican Trent Lott. “This event will change the balance between freedom and security,” echoed House Democrat Richard Gephardt. “There’s a whole range of issues that we’re going to be grappling with in the next month that takes us to this basic trade-off.”

Almost immediately, there were unmistakable signs that new surveillance tools would be a linchpin in the war on terrorism. The FBI met with AOL, EarthLink, and other large ISPs, and there was renewed talk of using DCS 1000 to let the bureau monitor their email traffic. Visionics-a maker of face-recognition software used in surveillance cameras in London and Tampa, Florida, and in the databases of close to a dozen state law enforcement agencies-reported that its switchboards were jammed. The stock prices of some companies in the security business spiked as the rest of the market crumbled.

But truth be told, the US was embracing the Surveillance Society well before September 11. In the name of safety, we have grown increasingly comfortable with cameras monitoring us whenever we stop to buy a Slurpee, grab cash from an ATM, or park in a downtown lot. And in the name of convenience, we’ve happily accepted a range of products and services, from cell phones to credit cards to Web browsers that make our lives easier and have the secondary effect of permitting us to be tracked. They’re not spy technologies-but they might as well be.

Americans don’t seem to be spooked by these incursions. “Apparently, consumers don’t feel their privacy is threatened,” says Barbara Bellissimo, owner of a now-defunct dotcom that offered anonymous Web browsing. “That’s why there are no profitable privacy companies.” (It might also be why millions of Americans watch reality-based television shows like Survivor that package round-the-clock surveillance as entertainment.)

Just how vast is the new surveillance world? Let’s start with cameras. More than 60 communities in a dozen states have set up traffic-light cameras that ticket drivers for running red lights or speeding. Casinos in Las Vegas zoom in on the cards we hold at the blackjack table. Cameras are mounted on police cars, they hang from trees in public parks, they’re affixed to the walls in sports stadiums and shopping malls. David Brin, author of The Transparent Society, postulates a “Moore’s law of cameras.” He sees them roughly “halving in size, and doubling in acuity and movement capability and sheer numbers, every year or two.”

The surveillance net also has a digital arm. With computers home to the data entrails of half a billion bank accounts, just as many credit card accounts, and hundreds of millions of medical claims, mortgages, and retirement funds, there exists a significant cache of online data about each of us.

Then there’s the matter of monitoring our daily travels. Debit cards like New York’s E-ZPass deduct a fee as commuters zip through tollbooths and track our comings and goings on the road; transit cards chart riders’ subway journeys; employee ID cards can show when we arrived at work, when we left, and where we went within the office complex. Phone cards mark who we call and, often, from where. Credit card records etch us in time and space more reliably than any eyewitness. So do airline tickets-even if you pay cash. And as for the cell phone: “If you turn it on, you can be tracked,” says Jim Atkinson, a countersurveillance expert who is president of Granite Island Group in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

OnStar, GM’s onboard communications system, offers a GPS service to its 1.5 million customers. That means that at any given moment, OnStar can locate each of those 1.5 million cars. (OnStar will track a car only at the request of the driver or, in some instances, the police; the company keeps no historical database of car locations, though if it had the inclination-or was pressured-to gather and store reams of data, it could.) Mercedes’ TeleAid and Ford’s Wingcast provide similar services. As does AirIQ, which Hertz, Avis, and Budget use for their premium fleets: If a car is abandoned, AirIQ can locate it; if it’s stolen, the company can disable its motor.

For now, the information about each of us resides in dozens of separate databases owned by the credit card companies, the phone carriers, the rental car agencies and police departments, the ISPs and the IRS. But the aftermath of September 11 could change all that by creating in many of us an appetite for information and a willingness to be monitored. And this raises a disquieting possibility: Will the disparate elements of our surveillance society be assembled into a surveillance web? Will the private companies and the government agencies come together to create a superdatabase accessible to … who? Will it strip us not just of personal privacy-we seem resigned, even OK, with that-but of public anonymity?

Worrying is a waste of time. Surveillance is here. It was inevitable. But the surveillance state is not.

A few days after September 11, Akram Jaber was driving his Chevy Suburban over the pothole-strewn streets of Chicago’s south side. With his 15-month-old son in the backseat, he was heading to the liquor store he owns to lock up for the night. A battered Chevy Caprice sped by, then stopped in front of him at a red light. Two men emerged; one pointed a gun at Jaber. “Take it easy,” Jaber called out. “I have my son in the car.” He left the keys in the ignition, unhitched his son, and turned over the $50,000 vehicle.

As the carjackers sped away, Jaber whipped out his cell phone to dial 911. Then he called an operator at OnStar. (He had been paying $16.95 a month for the basic Safety & Security plan: roadside and emergency assistance, remote lock and unlock, and stolen vehicle tracking.) He gave his name, license plate number, and four-digit PIN. The operator called Jaber’s vehicle and requested GPS data, then updated the car’s position by pinging it every minute. The operator relayed the car’s heading to the police officer on the scene, who forwarded it to a dispatcher. Within minutes, officers swooped in on the vehicle and arrested the men. “The police were amazed at how easy it was,” say Jaber, who himself was awfully pleased.

What’s really amazing is just how many similar tools are becoming available to law enforcement. A suspect’s alibi can be checked out by looking at the location data trail created by use of his tollbooth pass, transit card, or credit card. Surveillance cameras capture images that authorities can cross-check against a database of criminals through the use of face-recognition software. And cell phones have become the digital equivalent of Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs.

When a cell phone is turned on, it broadcasts an identification number to the closest antennas, which allow the carrier to chart its customers. It’s a simple matter-known as triangulation-to track the signal as it arrives at different towers, then calculate the location of the phone based on time differences. The police have taken full advantage of this tracking trick, though-technically, at least-they need a court order to access the information. Earlier this year, Timothy Crosby, 40, was busted for raping and robbing a Brooklyn woman after the police located him by homing in on his cell phone signal. In November 2000, authorities pursued Kofi Apea Orleans-Lindsay for allegedly killing a Maryland state trooper during a buy-and-bust operation. Police used cell data to track Orleans-Lindsay to Brooklyn, where they arrested him.

Then there was the case of Christopher Stewart, a New York subway employee whose alibi in the March slaying of his ex-girlfriend crumbled when police subjected his MetroCard transit pass to detailed analysis (MetroCard use can be traced by a serial number). Stewart had claimed at the time she was killed he was on the subway to the Staten Island ferry, which he said he boarded. But data from the MetroCard, still in his possession, had him exiting a subway station near the crime scene just before the murder. He was arrested and indicted by a grand jury. MetroCard records were also used against Marco Valencia, who was charged in the December 1999 assault and robbery of a supermarket manager in Manhattan. Valencia claimed he was in Staten Island, but his MetroCard told a different tale, and when confronted, he pleaded guilty.

In light of the way cell phones and transit cards are being used to track criminals, video cameras seem remarkably, well, obvious. But they’re a cornerstone of the surveillance society, and they’ve proved an important weapon in law enforcement’s arsenal. Prior to September 11, such cameras stirred up controversy. When the Tampa Police Department installed face-recognition software in its network last June, the public was outraged, and House majority leader Dick Armey joined with civil rights groups to protest. There was similar push-back in Britain in 1996, when authorities installed 300 cameras in the East London neighborhood of Newham in an effort to gather intelligence on suspected IRA bombings. The cameras didn’t help much in the fight on terrorism, but overall crime rates fell 30 percent after they were deployed, according to city figures. Crime dropped an additional 34 percent in 1998, after the cameras were equipped with Visionic’s face-recognition software. Last year, illegal activities in surrounding areas increased between 10 and 20 percent, but Newham’s inched up less than half a percent. The program has been so successful that Visionics has been retained to hook up closed-circuit TV cameras in five more nearby London neighborhoods.

Although face-recognition surveillance systems are not foolproof, most Brits now view “spy” cameras as a part of everyday life, and polls indicate a majority of citizens support their use. England already boasts about 1.5 million police surveillance cameras-more than any other country-and the government plans to double that number within three years. With so many cams, the average city denizen can expect to be taped every five minutes, according to The Times of London.

Even as new surveillance technologies increase the amount of information available about each of us, there’s something reassuring in the fact that this data is extremely far-flung. It would, today, take a considerable amount of sleuthing and multiple search warrants for anyone-individuals, private companies, public agencies-to aggregate the fruits of the surveillance web in any useful way.

But there are signs that in the future it might be much easier to access disparate data about individuals-where they’ve been, what they bought, who they were with, what they were wearing, who they called, what Web sites they visited, what they wrote in email. After all, the information exists, and from a technical perspective, it’s easy to tap (cell phones, credit cards, ATMs, tollbooth passes-all are part of the same bitstream of 0s and 1s). The legal protections that might have prevented access to this data are eroding. And as the line between the public and private sectors blurs, the data will likely flow in ways it never has before.

So what do we get? Think of all these factoids residing not in some static database but in a dynamic environment in which strands of information can be pulled together from a huge variety of sources based on a user’s request. It’s not Microsoft Outlook, it’s Google.

In fact, researchers at Applied Systems Intelligence in Roswell, Georgia, are working on just such software. Called Karnac (Knowledge Aided Retrieval in Activity Context), the program would scan everything from gun registrations and credit card records to newspapers and Web sites. While Karnac or a similar program may be a long way off, more modest developments provide a glimpse into where we could be headed. In the weeks following the attacks, airport authorities hatched plans for security systems that would link biometric techniques like iris scans with a government database of known or suspected terrorists. Such systems could easily migrate to other public spaces, motivated by a concern for community safety and a desire to catch criminals.

Eventually, surveillance cameras in every mom-and-pop store could use face-recognition software and network databases to link you to your Social Security number, consumer profile, credit report, home and work addresses, and criminal and driving records. Networked street cams could track your location-and keep the digital footage on file.

The gated communities of tomorrow will be monitored by cameras, motion detectors, and sensors of all kinds embedded in the walls, floors-every surface. Such systems, hyped as smart-house technologies, are already in beta at universities and corporate labs across the country.

Tools such as Bluetooth and 802.11 will turn every object and street corner into a node of the wireless Web, aware of and communicating with the Net-connected PDA and cell of every passerby. Like transit cards and tollbooth passes, the wireless Web isn’t a surveillance technology per se, but it will have that effect.

Look out a few more years and nano-cameras as small as grains of sand will create a world in which the wind has eyes. Fingerprint-scanning doorknobs and steering wheels could know their users by touch.

There will be limits, of course-legal mechanisms like search warrants that protect individuals from undue surveillance. But those safeguards will change with the times. In an effort to bring wiretapping laws into the cellular age, Attorney General Ashcroft proposed-and Congress approved-“roving wiretaps” to give the government authority to monitor a suspect’s calls from any phone and any jurisdiction. As communications technologies continue to multiply and blur, it will be increasingly difficult to say where the telephone network ends and the Web begins. Cell phones send messages to pagers. Cars log on to the Internet. The search warrants of the surveillance era will need to span multiple technologies and will likely be written with increasingly broad language.

If all this raises the specter of Big Brother, well, that’s understandable. But it’s also wrong. Even as we trade privacy for security and convenience, we’re hardly headed toward totalitarianism. Orwell’s greatest error, says Peter Huber, author of Orwell’s Revenge, was his view that the government had a monopoly on surveillance technologies. Says Huber: “If the Thought Police use telescreens, so can others-that’s just the way telescreens work, if they work at all.”

Indeed, citizens have already learned to use surveillance tools to keep government accountable. When motorist Rodney King was beaten by Los Angeles police officers in 1991, a bystander caught the incident on video. Though the subsequent trial ended in acquittal of the officers, it proved the potency of videotape as evidence. “Video cameras create a potential counterbalance-a kind of ombudsman,” says Sam Gregory, a program coordinator for Witness, a New York nonprofit that lends video equipment to human rights activists around the world. “They let citizens protect themselves and hold the state accountable.” Recent projects sponsored by Witness include Operation Fine Girl, which documents rape as a weapon of war in Sierra Leone, and Behind the Labels, an exposé of the clothing-industry sweatshops in Saipan.

In Orange County, California, the sheriff’s department mounted video cameras on its patrol cars with the idea that footage of arrests could be used to protect against false accusations of excessive force. Not surprisingly, those tapes have been used against the police officers themselves. In June, Robert Delgiudice, who was beaten by police for resisting arrest, had his case dismissed when the video showed that the officer had lied in his police report and preliminary hearing testimony. (Delgiudice is now planning a civil suit.) As Don Landis Jr., the Orange County deputy public defender who argued Delgiudice’s case, puts it: “The cameras bring accountability.”

They also bring transparency, which is almost always a good thing. An antidote to corruption, it keeps financial markets strong, governments honest, and corporations accountable. In public institutions and on city streets, the more transparency the better. Sometimes the reverse is true: The darkness of privacy is essential to the conversations between doctor and patient, to the personal information sent by letter, and to the things we do and say within our bedrooms. In those cases, privacy must be staunchly defended.

“Just about the only Fourth Amendment concern that the Supreme Court protects, year after year, decision after decision, is a US citizen’s privacy in his own home,” says Landis. Earlier this year, the court upheld this principle again, deciding that the police in Florence, Oregon, had violated the Fourth Amendment when, without a warrant, they used thermal imaging technology to detect the heat lamps inside the house of a man they suspected of growing marijuana. Any technology that enables law enforcement to see or hear through walls, the court decreed, required a search warrant; without a warrant, the practice amounted to an unreasonable search.

The Constitution itself, therefore, stands in the way of Big Brother. OK, privacy is eroding. But liberty, and the safeguards inherent in due process, remain strong. The government can collect megabytes of information about us, but where and when they do and how that information is used is still subject to the laws designed to keep the state from abusing its power.

And of course, even as Congress and the judicial system struggle to maintain the balance of privacy and security, citizens will continue to take technology into their own hands.

“Look at all the cameras and cell phones, a gazillion of them, that documented everything on September 11,” says David Brin. “The powers of vision and information are expanding exponentially in the hands of the people, far faster than they are being acquired by government.” In the long run, Brin predicts, it will be people-empowered by the surveillance web-who thwart the thugs, the tyrants, and even the terrorists.

Copyright 2001 Adam L. Penenberg (penenberg.com)