Enhanced Surveillance in the Name of Safety

Another wave of surveillance in the name of safety coming our way adding to the already over criminalized and monitored conditions we have.

May 16, 2022

By: Bobby Casey, Managing Director GWP

surveillance safety Do you ever see those memes that say something like:

1950: By 2022 we are going to have flying cars! 2022: *Kids eating laundry pods*

They really hit hard because I look around and see so much unrealized potential, but that insatiable curiosity for the next great thing has fizzled.

People are excited to put their personal lives and performances out on social media for the world to see, and government has taken this as an easy portal into further expanding surveillance.

Over the past decade we’ve seen a battle for privacy, especially online. In the EU, there is the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations):

GDPR can be considered as the world’s strongest set of data protection rules, which enhance how people can access information about them and places limits on what organizations can do with personal data.

The US doesn’t have anything comparable. Rather it has a series of existing laws that are being reinterpreted and applied to cover digital privacy:

  • Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) [1986] – protects certain wire, oral, and electronic communications from unauthorized interception, access, use, and disclosure.

  • Computer Fraud & Abuse Act (CFAA) [1986] – makes unlawful certain computer-related activities involving the unauthorized access of a computer to obtain certain information, defraud or obtain anything of value, transmit harmful items, or traffic in computer passwords. The law has been in amended six times.

  • Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) [1998] – requires certain website and online service providers to obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting, using, or disclosing personal information from minors under the age of 13. It also requires websites to post an online privacy policy, collect only the personal information necessary, and create and maintain reasonable security measures.

All of these regulations apply to private companies and individuals. Not so much when it comes to the government.

Over two years ago, we wrote a piece about Clearview AI. It’s one of the largest facial recognition AI technologies that exist in the world. Over 600 law enforcement agencies are using their technology. Even if we assume zero cases of misuse (which is a pipe dream unto itself), the accuracy is at best unverified, and at worst dangerously flawed.

Clearview insists there is no racial bias or inaccuracy based on an independent study they know of, but outside of that, the technology itself has faced strong criticism of not only privacy violations but mistaken identities when it comes to people of color and women.

A handful of congress members from both the House and Senate urged ICE and FBI to cease the use of Clearview AI. Sens. Edward Markey and Jeffrey Merkley, as well as House Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Ayanna Presley:

“…cited a government study that found Black, Brown and Asian individuals were up to 100 times more likely to be misidentified than white male faces. There have been a handful of cases where Black citizens were wrongfully arrested because of a false facial recognition match.”

The accuracy sounds comparable to a call-in lead: it points investigators in a particular direction, but is still very weak as a form of conclusive evidence.

Along those same lines, another piece of surveillance technology emerged called ShotSpotter. True to its name, it detects when gun shots are fired. Rather, it’s SUPPOSED to detect gunshots fired. What it actually does is a little less than that:

  • In Fall River, Massachusetts, police said ShotSpotter worked less than 50% of the time and missed all seven shots in a downtown murder in 2018. The results didn’t improve over time, and later that year ShotSpotter turned off its system.

  • AP’s investigation found the system can miss live gunfire right under its microphones, or misclassify the sounds of fireworks or cars backfiring as gunshots.

  • Forensic reports prepared by ShotSpotter’s employees have been used in court to improperly claim that a defendant shot at police, or provide questionable counts of the number of shots allegedly fired by defendants. Judges in a number of cases have thrown out the evidence.

These are all just studies until someone gets caught in the crosshairs. That someone is Michael Williams. He was wrongly convicted for the murder of Safarian Herring, spent a year in jail, and was later released for lack of evidence. The real murderer is still at large.

Williams was behind the wheel when a passing car fired at his vehicle, killing his 25-year-old passenger Safarian Herring, who had hitched a ride.

Despite the fact that Williams had no motive, there were no eyewitnesses to the shooting, no gun was found in the car, and Williams himself drove Herring to the hospital, police charged the 65-year-old man with first-degree murder based on ShotSpotter, a gunshot detection program that had picked up a loud bang on its network of surveillance microphones and triangulated the noise to correspond with a noiseless security video showing Williams’ car driving through an intersection.

And this is gaining popularity with law enforcement agencies!

It doesn’t stop there. General Motors (GM) recently announced their intention to share driver demographic data, as well as vehicle safety data, with local, state, and federal authorities. Roughly $5 billion of the notorious Infrastructure Bill passed under the Biden administration funded this through a grant program called “Safe Streets and Roads for All”.

Here are the two endeavors we have to look forward to coming out of GM:

  • Using the cloud-based application Safety View, a joint venture between GM and INRIX, the automaker hopes to eventually achieve “zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion,” says Alan Wexler, GM senior vice president of Strategy and Innovation.

  • GM is evaluating a program called Vision Zero. It would allow officials with “near real-time insights” into driver and vehicle data.

These surveillance breakthroughs aren’t happening in isolation of each other. They are coming together to work against the civil liberties of every individual. You can’t have over-criminalization and then follow that with surveillance technology that all but presumes guilt and expect freedom as a result.

Freedom is the price people pay for the illusion of centralized safety.

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