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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 5/18/18

Without Regulation, We're Headed Toward a Surveillance Explosion

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Dan Matthews
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Can you believe there's no regulation on facial recognition? Okay, so let me step back a little and tell you how I got here. The other day I heard a story about how U.S. police departments are balking on adopting real-time facial recognition tech . China, Russia, India, and the UK are already using this technology, but here in the states law enforcement is hesitant to sign on because of the price tag as well as concerns about how the public would perceive this type of surveillance. Apparently, "The companies that make the systems say they're now able to compare an image against billions of faces, which makes it technically feasible to track the residents of a whole city -- or country."

One of the arguments I've heard when it comes to government surveillance is if you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about. Not surprisingly, this argument came from a religious person. They posited a tacit kind of compliance with a state of affairs that looks much like Orwell's 1984. It wasn't that they were advocating for surveillance. They were just saying that if you do right by your fellow man, you're blameless before the law. The law can watch you all they want, but if you haven't done anything wrong, surveillance won't make a difference in your life.

This argument is flawed, but before I attempt to tackle it head on, I'd like to make an observation: law enforcement and the government are not the only ones who engage in surveillance.

For a while now, Silicon Valley and other tech enthusiasts have been touting the internet of things (IoT). The IoT is a web of objects with sensors that transmit data to servers. For the most part, these objects send data to the cloud. We interact with these objects via apps and software. Most of what we know of the IoT seems harmless and is probably less intrusive than our smartphones. Smart thermostats, smart vacuums, smart refrigerators, smart homes -- these are the most recognizable accoutrements of the IoT.

Yet the IoT presents ample opportunities for companies and the government to map, catalogue, track, and analyze every movement people make. Spying on everyone, not just criminal suspects, is the signature of modern tech. Corporate entities conduct surveillance in the interest of productivity, profits, and safety. But according to the University of Southern California, the IoT has a psychological impact at work in which "the workplace grows into a dreaded panopticon." The IoT "provides immense capacity to track individual movements throughout the workday, data that -- while potentially useful -- can reduce autonomy and create a sense of constant observation." This sense of constant observation creates anxiety and makes workers feel like tools, like cattle being branded, tagged, and herded through gates. Beyond each successive gate is a carrot to prompt your compliance and settle your unease; the corporate world likes to call this "gamification."

The corporate sphere isn't the only place where the IoT is having an impact. It's also changing computer forensics . In 2017, Bentonville, Arkansas investigators accessed data from an Amazon Echo to investigate a murder case that involved a house party. From the Amazon smart speaker, they obtained information that became evidence in the trial of the homeowner who threw the party. It's easy to say it takes a dumb criminal to let a smart speaker spy on you while you're committing a murder. But the man may not have been aware that the speaker was recording him and storing his words in a database.

To be fair, the technology situation we're in is not one-sided. Users can delete their data from the Amazon Alexa app that controls the Echo. And there's technology that benefits criminals, such as encryption. Techdirt reports that there are people and companies who sell encrypted phones to organized crime rings, which has prompted FBI Director Chris Wray to call unbreakable encryption an "urgent public safety issue." Wray wants weakened encryption and compliance from tech companies so that the rest of us law-abiding citizens can be safe from rampant tech-loving criminals and terrorists. In response, Oregon senator Ron Wyden called out Wray , asking him to provide "a list of the cryptographers" with whom he had "personally discussed this topic," and to "specifically identify those experts who advised you that companies can feasibly design government access features into their products without weakening cybersecurity."

This is all part of a larger issue that isn't going away anytime soon. Many people are not aware of the fact that the internet of things collects and stores data on individuals, and this is a largely unregulated sphere. There's no government-enforced, common encryption standard for the billions of smart devices infiltrating the market (by 2020, there will be over 20 billion connected devices circulating). Even without a government backdoor, the cybersecurity to which Wyden refers is actually a very tenuous state of affairs.

Here's the developing picture: billions of IoT devices collect data on our every movement. With facial recognition technology able to instantly identify who you are, law enforcement won't be very far away from knowing where anyone is at any moment. The panopticon is spreading out of the corporate world and into the public sphere.

The simple and most applicable question is, so what? If you're not breaking the law, won't surveillance actually keep you from falling prey to a criminal? Plus, many companies keep their data out of the government's hands because they don't want to fall on the wrong side of the privacy debate. It hurts their brand image.

The issue is ethical. People who don't break the law don't deserve to be surveilled. Yes, do good, be on the right side of the law and you have nothing to fear; but no, don't roll over and throw up your hands when it comes to holding authorities to an ethical standard.

American police departments haven't yet adopted instant facial recognition, but it's a little scary to know other nations have. Once software prices drop and homegrown murderers keep rampaging, there are no regulations stopping police from analyzing your face the instant you step outside your door. Surveillance technologies could take government power to dangerous places. The American people have already shown we can fall prey to a man like Trump. If we let people like this continue to run our government, we'll see powerful, all-encompassing surveillance tools in the hands of people who will do whatever they can to remain in power. Plus, there's already enough anxiety in America as is. If anything, we need to watch ourselves less.

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