Eyes in the sky: Surveillance tech comes home

Branka Marijan Emerging Technologies, Featured, Ploughshares Monitor

By Branka Marijan

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 40 Issue 3 Autumn 2019

In 2016, the Baltimore, Maryland Police Department conducted a pilot project with Ohio-based contractor Persistent Surveillance Systems. Over the course of three months, they engaged a small plane to fly over West Baltimore and take numerous pictures of the area. The system they employed—high-resolution, wide-area motion imagery, also known as persistent surveillance—was first used by the U.S. Air Force in Iraq.

No one informed the mayor or city government. When the story finally broke, civil-liberties groups protested vigorously and the pilot was stopped.

In a more recent story in The Guardian, the Pentagon was shown to be testing wide-area motion imagery in six Midwestern states, using high-altitude solar-powered balloons. The balloons are equipped with high-tech radars that can track multiple vehicles and individuals at once. The stated goal is to locate and shut down narcotics trafficking and “homeland security threats.”

The creep of military-grade surveillance technologies

No one seems to know how pervasive the civilian use of this kind of military tech is. But there is evidence that China, for one, is developing surveillance technology for widespread use among the general population. What we know for certain is that all these new surveillance tools collect massive amounts of information, which must be analyzed to be used.

So, the world’s most advanced militaries are now both researching and developing, as well as funding the private development of, advanced surveillance-analysis algorithms. Already some of these new artificial intelligence (AI) tools “can perform at near-human levels.”

As prices drop, more surveillance and analysis technologies, developed for military use in active war zones, will become available in domestic situations. At the moment, most use is in the United States. But that could change—soon.

Unlike heavy weapons—like tanks—surveillance tech can be quite easily adapted to domestic use. And this more sophisticated surveillance technology promises to reduce crime. There are proponents—even some ordinary citizens—who believe that all the new data will aid police in tracking down criminal activity and even deter it.

Public concerns

I see two areas of concern: 1) military-grade technology is finding its way into domestic practice and policy; 2) the use of such tech in public service and spaces can be seen to be driven, to some degree at least, by commercial interests.

First, the existence of such tech eats away at the privacy and civil rights of individual citizens. This is particularly the case for individuals living in overly policed communities, who already face discrimination and undue scrutiny. Personal data could be misused in many ways. Extreme cases include blackmailing prominent citizens or tracking the activities of various humanitarian or civil-rights organizations.

And, when private companies carry out the surveillance, there is the concern that personal data could be sold to other companies. We all have digital footprints today, but with new surveillance systems, the amount of detail could increase exponentially. As could the value to other commercial interests.

Private interests

The commercial interests are personified by individuals like Ross McNutt, tech entrepreneur/owner of Persistent Surveillance Systems, who continues to promote the technology. Indeed, McNutt recently approached the Baltimore police commissioner with an offer to restart the surveillance project. All costs would be covered by a grant from private donors, billionaires John and Laura Arnold, who also funded the pilot project. While this offer has apparently gotten some support from Baltimore citizens (only a minority), the mayor and police commissioner have so far determined that the program will not be relaunched.

Palantir Technologies CEO Alex Karp is another tech entrepreneur who enthusiastically provides surveillance software to the military, law enforcement agencies, and the intelligence community. Palantir software is also used by banks, research organizations, and commercial businesses. Palantir has offices in Canada, and Canadian industry and governments use their software. The recent appointment of former Canadian ambassador to the United States, David MacNaughton, as president of Palantir Canada seems to signal a greater interest in the Canadian market.

Should Canadians be worried?

In a new book, Eyes in the Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare and How It Will Watch Us All, Arthur Holland Michel sees pervasive surveillance in our global future. He writes, “Someday, most major developed cities in the world will live under the unblinking gaze of some form of wide-area surveillance.”

Canada is not immune. While there is no current evidence that wide-area motion imagery is being used here, tech companies are exploring the Canadian market.

Recently, an Australian company made a pitch to the city of Edmonton to catch distracted drivers by mounting cameras with machine-learning software. The cameras would take high-resolution photos of each passing car and then the software would analyze the images and select those that showed distracted driving, deleting all others. This approach appeals to many citizens who want safer roads.

Today, these systems are far from perfect. They frequently misidentify objects and individuals. In complex, dynamic environments, such as urban areas, AI can’t identify and analyze all the noise. Computer systems fail in different ways than humans and make mistakes that humans would not.

The technology is, however, improving. This can be seen as good, if greater accuracy is all that is valued. But greater accuracy brings its own set of challenges and concerns. Do we want technology that can always pick us out of a crowd? Collecting data isn’t the biggest worry. More significant is the use of AI to automatically track information and systematically analyze it.

As a society interested in maintaining privacy and other civil rights and freedoms, we need to pay attention and become aware of what is going on. Closer scrutiny of the role of some private companies is called for. As is tighter regulation of how those companies operate, even if there hasn’t been much activity thus far.

In Baltimore, there was no public notice about the use of surveillance technology. Privacy regulations need to be strengthened to ensure that private firms and individuals cannot surveil entire populations for profit and without restriction.

Photo: An Australian company, Acusensus, made a pitch to the city of Edmonton to catch distracted drivers by mounting cameras with machine-learning software. The cameras would take high-resolution photos of each passing car and then the software would analyze the images and select those that showed distracted driving, deleting all others. Acusensus

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