Private Big Brothers are arriving
For many decades I've had an ongoing debate with my friend David Brin over the ideas in his book The Transparent Society where he ponders what happens when cameras and surveillance technology become so cheap it's impossible to stop them from being everywhere.
While I and my colleagues at the EFF have worked to reduce government and corporate surveillance of our lives, at the back of my mind I have had a fear of what happens when groups of private citizens create surveillance systems. While we can debate whether the government can put up cameras on every corner, we can't stop private homeowners from having cameras on their own land which video the street in front of their house, which is a public space.
I noticed the launch last month of a company called Flock which wants to provide automatic licence plate readers to neighbourhoods. They will track every car going in and out of a neighbourhood. They will know (and forget about) the cars of residents, and will also know about the cars of regular visitors to the neighbourhood. If you've paid them their fee, and you get a break-in, you can get a list of all unusual cars that were in the area during the crime, and you can hand it to the police.
Certainly that seems legal, and it's not hard to see that neighbours would like it. They keep their privacy (presuming the promise of not recording known resident cars is kept) and only "outsiders" are tracked. I can even see wanting this info myself after a theft I had last year from my car. While it might not solve crimes, it would certainly add to the evidence to convict a suspect.
Instead, the question around this is, what if everybody does it, and things like it? We're not far from adding face recognition to these camera systems, so video is kept of all unknown people. The result is a world where you're a bit more secure at your own house, but you're under massive surveillance everywhere else. It is better that the data are provided only when a crime is reported, rather than having the police operate the system, but there are many countries where this technology will be run by police and spies. And it's hard to say it will be impossible for the police to get access to the data even when no homeowner wants it. But in reality, police will always be able to convince a homeowner to want it.
We then get a surveillance tragedy of the commons. What seems good for every group that does it sneaks Orwell's world in through the back door.
I should not mention Flock without pointing out that there is a much more developed threat in licence plate recognition from companies such as Vigilant Solutions. They have put up a large network of cameras and sell the data to police. I write about Flock not because it's as big a threat to privacy as Vigilant is today, but because the alternate business model of selling to private individuals makes things so different. On the one hand, it's better that it's not going directly to the police. On the other hand, it creates the tragedy of the commons I described -- it makes sense for any one neighbourhood to deploy something like this, but creates Big Brother if we all do. It's harder to figure legal challenges to this, while the legal challenges for Vigilant are more obvious, though not necessarily easy.