Monday, March 27, 2006

Surveillance Convergence

Scott Baltic, the editor of Homeland Protection Professional magazine, has an editorial in the current issue [no link, paid subscription required] that discusses the convergence of public and private surveillance efforts. Baltic cites the following example of what happens when the two sectors work together in, perhaps, unanticipated ways:

Say you just put some gas into the minivan you rented, but suddenly your credit card doesn’t work. Turns out that the rental company (which was monitoring your driving) fined you three times for speeding and instantly put the fines ($450 worth) on your card, which is now over its limit.

Yes, that really happened, and according to the fine print on the rental contract (you know, that stuff none of us ever reads), it was legal.

The system that has already grown up, [Washington Post reporter Robert O’Harrow, Jr] said, is “very secret and hard to hold to account,” largely because it’s being driven by the information and marketing industries, which tend to be little regulated.


[O’Harrow] also noted there’s no evidence that any terrorists have been caught through increased domestic surveillance.

Baltic echoes O’Harrow’s comments about the lack of public debate on these issues.

Not that there’s been a lack of debate about surveillance: writers across the political spectrum have been going on and on about various surveillance issues (especially the brouhaha over preznit’s use of the NSA to spy on all of us). I think Baltic’s point (and O’Harrow’s, for that matter) might be that some of the more esoteric dangers may be getting lost in the bigger picture.

Baltic cites one information source that many people don’t think about – tollway passes like EZ-Pass. When I was a teenager in Connecticut in the 70’s, we had paper toll tickets we could use (at a hefty discount) on the Conn. Turnpike. Although the tickets were numbered, nobody ever tracked the purchasers, so one could pretty much travel anonymously. The state then instituted a system of toll plates for use on the Merritt and Wilbur Cross Parkways. These plates were purchased (again at a hefty discount) from the Department of Motor Vehicles, and allowed the operator to pass through the toll plazas without stopping, but all the driver’s information was on file with DMV; however, the individual toll plazas did not record each passage of a specific vehicle.

EZ-Pass, however, being computer-driven, creates a permanent record of when and where every EZ-Pass comes within range of a reader. We’ve probably all seen various episodes of “Law and Order” where detectives pull a suspect’s EZ-Pass records to prove he/she was in the area of the murder. EZ-Pass is accepted in 11 states (basically everything north and east of Virginia, plus Illinois); that means – if you have EZ-Pass – that your vehicle can be pinpointed as to date, time, and location, any time you are on a toll road in any of those states.

If this information is coupled with, say, credit or debit card records, or customer-loyalty cards from your supermarket, the resulting aggregation of data is astounding. Throw the records from your GPS or OnStar service into the mix, and give up any thoughts you might have about privacy when you travel.

Couple this with the recent disclosures about the NSA, and previous issues with the so-called “PATRIOT Act”, and it becomes obvious that not only is Big Brother here, he’s here to stay. And when you consider that Big Brother is personified by Bush, Cheney, Gonzales, Rumsfeld, et al., you should be afraid. You should be very afraid.

All these various surveillance techniques and programs are being pitched as efforts to “fight terrorism”, yet as O’Harrow points out, no terrorists have been caught as a result.

Security expert Bruce Schneier, whom I’ve quoted before, has additional commentary on surveillance issues in his Crypto-Gram newsletter.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

1 comment:

  1. Well, it's simple, I hold a tennis ball over here see, and while you're staring at the tennis ball in my left hand, my right hand is flipping through your' wallet and credit cards and cash etc... Lot's of savagery around here methinks.