Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Surveillance: Who needs Big Brother when everyone's doing it?

(EDITED TO ADD:  Just hours after I published this article, along comes yet another example of egregious government overreach in data collection.  Read all about it at the link.)

In all the fuss and kerfuffle over the revelations made by Edward Snowden, a point that tends to be forgotten is that companies, employers, police and local authorities are in the surveillance business too.  In fact, we have perilously little privacy left at all.  Here are a few examples from recent reports.

First, the New York Times reports that surveillance is changing employee behavior in the restaurant industry.

The researchers measured the impact of software that monitors employee-level theft and sales transactions, before and after the technology was installed, at 392 restaurants in 39 states ... The software is intentionally set so that a restaurant manager gets only an electronic theft alert in cases that seem to clearly be misconduct. Otherwise, a manager might be mired in time-consuming detective work instead of running the restaurant.

The savings from the theft alerts themselves were modest, $108 a week per restaurant. However, after installing the monitoring software, the revenue per restaurant increased by an average of $2,982 a week, or about 7 percent.

The impact, the researchers say, came not from firing workers engaged in theft, but mostly from their changed behavior. Knowing they were being monitored, the servers not only pulled back on any unethical practices, but also channeled their efforts into, say, prompting customers to have that dessert or a second beer, raising revenue for the restaurant and tips for themselves.

There's more at the link.

Next, police across the nation are routinely capturing data about vehicle movements - data that effectively destroys the privacy of the driver.  USA Today reported in July:

Police across the USA are using automatic cameras to read and snap digital photos of millions of car license plates to help solve crimes, but in the process stores information on millions of innocent people, the American Civil Liberties Union says in a report out Wednesday.

The digital dragnet mostly collects data that are unrelated to any suspected lawbreaking or known activity of interest to law enforcement. It is a fast-growing trend ripe for misuse and abuse, the ACLU says.

License plate scanners are "in effect, government location tracking systems recording the movements of many millions of innocent Americans in huge databases," said ACLU staff attorney Catherine Crump, the report's lead author. The ACLU says there is little supervision or control over the data that were recorded, usually without motorists realizing their locations have been recorded.

"This is a way to track all Americans all the time, regardless of whether they're accused of any wrongdoing," said Crump, calling the readers "the most widespread location tracking technology you've probably never heard of."

Again, more at the link.

The US government is actively engaged with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of major US companies, gathering customer data from them and providing unspecified 'benefits' in return.  In this way, it's able to collect information about citizens and residents without gathering it itself - it's merely engaged in a 'commercial transaction' to obtain information already gathered by those citizens' and residents' suppliers.  Bloomberg reported earlier this year:

Makers of hardware and software, banks, Internet security providers, satellite telecommunications companies and many other companies ... participate in the government programs.

. . .

The extensive cooperation between commercial companies and intelligence agencies is legal and reaches deeply into many aspects of everyday life, though little of it is scrutinized by more than a small number of lawyers, company leaders and spies. Company executives are motivated by a desire to help the national defense as well as to help their own companies, said the people, who are familiar with the agreements.

Most of the arrangements are so sensitive that only a handful of people in a company know of them, and they are sometimes brokered directly between chief executive officers and the heads of the U.S.’s major spy agencies, the people familiar with those programs said.

. . .

Typically, a key executive at a company and a small number of technical people cooperate with different agencies and sometimes multiple units within an agency, according to the four people who described the arrangements.

If necessary, a company executive, known as a “committing officer,” is given documents that guarantee immunity from civil actions resulting from the transfer of data.

More at the link.

I'm somewhat heartened to learn that at least some Americans are getting fed up with Big Brother (and his corporate minions) spying on them.  The Blaze reports:

Citizens across the country have grumbled about speed cameras, but someone in Wicomico County, Maryland appears to be making a physical — and political — point.

[A] traffic camera, supposedly in Wicomico County, Maryland, was spray-painted over the lens and tagged with the year 1776, the year the U.S. declared its independence.

More at the link, including a photograph of the damaged camera.

Whoever did that, I hope he or she goes right on doing it!  It's a small blow for freedom, but if more of us followed his or her example, it might make a difference.  Every little helps!



Rev. Paul said...

I saw a report (some time ago) that UK citizens - fed up with the ubiquitous camera presence - have started placing a tyre around cameras, filling the tyres with petrol, and setting them alight. (Nouns changed to reflect the culture, don'tcha know...)

Rolf said...

The ever-present monitoring, tracking, and data-mining by private companies is a concern. It takes not but a small change in law to give the government access to all these "little improvements in the system," and computer processing technology to search, sort, and categorize to make human interaction minimal, right up to the point where you become "a person of interest." When a government becomes oppressive, and all your movements are automatically tracked via cell phone, license plate, facial recognition, etc., how to you contact confederates, move, plan, do what you need to do? Seems to me that the "unintended consequences" (book) of cells of one, doing something one time when it's not far out of your routine, it about the only way.

C. S. P. Schofield said...

When this camera nonsense started, I fully expected people to STEAL the things. Probably influenced by my experience living around the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus, where engineering students made a habit of doing just that to Texas Boots.

skreidle said...


Court: Federal Law Allows Lying in TSA-Related FOIA Requests | TSA Out of Our Pants! -- [Moments ago, the remaining claims in my lawsuit stemming from being illegally detained at FLL airport and then lied to about the existence of CCTV video of the incident, were dismissed.] (via )

skreidle said...

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