What’s Wrong With … Surveillance

“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear from ubiquitous surveillance.” Uhm, really?

Well, I have something to hide. It’s nothing illegal. I just want to hide from a lot of people: Sales and marketing people, for example, who want to get my mon*cough*attention. People, who hate the company I work for (for whatever good or bad reason). People, who dislike my religion, my taste in clothes, politics or sex.

Imagine a male working for the London police. He’s been dumped by his girlfriend, he’s jealous or just seeking revenge. He sits in his little office and tracks her moving around the city with the some of the 500’000 cameras in the city. Eventually, he sees her meeting with her new flame. What will he do?

Maybe he will not use the face recognition software (which was pretty useless a few years ago). But there are other way. The new boyfriend of “his” girl will probably walk to his car (identification by license plate is a standard tool for the police and you wouldn’t believe the zoom levels the surveillance cameras can get if you don’t limit them artificially) or he will go home. Guess who is having a surprise visit tonight? In 2003, the LA Times brought an article “LA Police Officer Uses Database to Snoop on the Stars“. Apparently, this fellow was looking for a way to even out his income by selling juicy details to tabloids.

The problem with surveillance is not that I have nothing to hide, it’s that I don’t trust all the people who operate the system. In order to “increase” the safety of the system, little is known about which directly leads to a sense of untouchability by the people who run them. We have seen where this leads. Power doesn’t corrupt, unaccountability does.

But there are other problems as well. In Germany, a camera was installed to protect a museum but it also watched the private flat of Angela Merkel (German only). Don’t worry, it watched her only for eight years.

This could be fixed by operating the cameras automatically by a computer. A judge could grant access to the files when authorities receive a complaint. Unfortunately, this just shifts the problem. For most people, computers are still magical boxes. They know that it’s just a bunch of cleverly arranged silicon atoms but the real problem is that they can’t tell when a computer lies. Of course, that never happens. Right?

Well, computers don’t lie in the sense that they can know fact A and tell you B. That’s a human skill. But a human can delete fact A and replace it with fact B and the computer will happily present fact B as The Truth(TM). Since security systems are by default accessible by a select few only, it becomes increasingly hard to know if someone has tampered with a system. Worse, someone can accidentally break something. Your name might suddenly appear on the persona non grata list of the USA because someone mistyped the last name of an evil doer who has the same birthday as you (a chance of 1:366 or less). Luckily, you will notice the next time you pass through customs. Enjoy your strip-search if they don’t arrest or shoot you on sight.

“But the computer said …” Several billion will find this funny, one person won’t. Of course, this is an exaggerated example. But quite a few people do find themselves at the special attention of customs and they don’t know why. That is because the victims aren’t informed about the mistake (the culprit already knows, the guy who made the mistake is sure he didn’t and the person who eventually finds out is too embarrassed to talk about it). Even when they eventually find out, it is insanely hard for to get the mistake fixed everywhere. So when you have finally made sure the guys at airport A know you’re cool, the computer at airport B might not know or might not trust that new information. After all, you might be a very clever cracker, trying to clear your slate! Can’t trust nobody!

Any system that is supposed to be secure, must allow for error, especially human error. When I was taught engineering, the rule was to make each piece twice as strong as it needed to be if a human life was in some way connected to it. That meant you could hang a small car to a swing and it wouldn’t break (don’t try; they have optimized the process since then). The security systems that are being sold to us today are sold as “infallible”. Like the Titanic, the Hindenburg, Bank computers, “automatic” invoice systems. They can’t make mistakes, so when one happens, no one will ask any questions. Somehow, everyone seems to forget that there are still very few computers that can read (and none who can understand what they just read; just ask Google … and they get the data in a computer readable format). Most data that you can find in any computer on this planet has been planted there by humans! Especially the data about other humans! Or as Thomas R. Fasulo said in his infamous IH8PCs blog: “You should never believe anything you read or hear. Especially if you read it here. “

Furthermore, the wide spread surveillance is sold under the flag of “safety”. We are supposed to be more safe. How so? The number of crimes doesn’t change. A few more crimes can be resolved because of the surveillance but the idea that they prevent them is foolish. People commit crimes because they believe they won’t be caught. If there is a camera, they will just adjust their strategy, not change their lives. Many of them believe that the reasons for their behavior is outside of their own control, so they really can’t do anything. On the other hand, imagine the torture of a rape victim that is being filmed in the act and the criminal doesn’t get caught.

Unfortunately, the surveillance systems are sold as a cheap solution for the underlying problems. If a kid has no perspective in life and only gang members as role models, what choice does it have? You would be astonished. Take the Bronx, turned into the sin pit of the world by the media. In 2000, there lived roughly 400’000 people between 10 and 25. In that year, a total of 48,070 crimes were recorded. If each was committed by a different individual, that means that 88% of the people followed the law (remember, even if they were not caught, the crime is still recorded). Sadly, spending millions of dollars for CCTV cameras is more cheap (as in simple) than trying to solve the real problems.

More safety by more surveillance? I don’t buy it.

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