Surveillance Society: If You Drive, You Get Tracked

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We’ve been teased for weeks with tantalizing leaks about the NSA, its cohorts in corporate America, and their programs and technologies that capture, store, and mine vast amounts of our personal data obtained from the internet and telecommunications. Data is power. And money. It’s for our own good, we’re told incessantly.

There are also physical aspects, like video surveillance with facial-recognition technologies and smartphone detectors to let your favorite retail store know when you – in true name – are looking at their display. Then there’s a technology that surreptitiously captures practically everyone out on the street, combines that data with other data, and makes it available to government agencies.

Palantir Technologies is the quintessential Silicon Valley startup. Its website is graced with photos of purposefully goofy but smart-looking young people: a guy in shorts and flips flops, feet propped against the conference-room table; a guy cradling a pooch; a guy holding a fixed-gear bike; a girl resting a saddle on a fence…. “We’re all engineers,” it says. They hosted the Girl Geek Dinner #32. The kind of company that makes Silicon Valley great.

Its mantra: “to radically change how groups analyze information.” Okay, it’s a slightly hackneyed mantra in Silicon Valley, but hey. More concretely:

We currently offer a suite of software applications for integrating, visualizing and analyzing the world’s information. We support many kinds of data including structured, unstructured, relational, temporal and geospatial…. They are broadly deployed in the intelligence, defense, law enforcement and financial communities.

The company sent its engineers to Oklahoma to help out after the tornado disaster, and one of its people testified at the House Subcommittee hearing on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications “to discuss the importance of open data portals and information sharing in disaster scenarios.” Their business is Big Data – and they’re putting their expertise to work for the public good. Awesome!

One of its early investors was In-Q-Tel (IQT), the venture-capital branch of the CIA, which put $2 million into it in 2005. “Palantir was developed to address the most complex information analysis and security challenges faced by the U.S. intelligence, military, and law enforcement communities,” IQT explained.

A year ago, the company signed a contract with the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, “one of dozens of law enforcement intelligence-sharing centers set up after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,” according to a report just published by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Goal: to build a database for information captured by license-plate scanners deployed by police agencies in 14 counties that “stretch from Monterey County to the Oregon border.” Local and state law enforcement agencies along with federal authorities can mine that database.

In the Bay Area alone, at least 32 agencies use the technologies. Some systems are mounted on vehicles. Others are fixed, such as red-light cameras at major intersections. One town, Tiburon, a wealthy enclave in Marin County with gorgeous views of San Francisco across the Bay, placed scanners and cameras on the only two roads leading into and out of town. And they all operate automatically.

So just how intrusive are they?

Computer security consultant Michael Katz-Lacabe found out when he filed a California Public Records Act request in 2010 in San Leandro, a town of 80,000 souls just south of Oakland, for all records that the town’s license-plate scanners had captured of his cars. He received a report with images of his two cars that had been captured on 112 occasions, dating back to 2008. The report didn’t include the countless times scanners and cameras had captured his cars in other parts of the Bay Area.

“I was surprised there were some pictures where I could actually identify people,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “Here’s one where I’m driving,” he said as he was looking through the report. “Here’s me in my Cal shirt.” One image from 2009 showed him and his daughters getting out of his car in their driveway. With the technology, “you can tell who your friends are, who you hang out with, where you go to church, whether you’ve been to a political meeting,” he said. He was under surveillance, and yet, as he noted, he hadn’t done anything wrong.

Government and law enforcement agencies love it. “It’s new technology, we’re learning as we go, but it works 100 times better than driving around looking for license plates with our eyes,” said Lt. Randall Brandt of the San Leandro police. Stories abound of law-enforcement successes: locating stolen cars, identifying suspected murders as they’re driving through town, or pinpointing cars of people who haven’t paid a parking ticket.

There are over 9 million residents in the Bay Area, and millions of tourists flow through it, and wherever they drive or park their car (or rental car!), the tag and location data may be captured, along with an image of the car, whoever is in it or near it, and whatever is behind it. Ever more devices are being deployed for a denser network of surveillance.

Granted, some of them actually make life easier: all-electronic tolling at the Golden Gate Bridge, for example. You no longer need to stop to pay, even if you don’t have FasTrak. As you drive through, the system captures your tag, and you’ll get the bill in the mail. On Sunday evening, traffic no longer gets backed up for eight miles just to get across the bridge.

What is new is the sheer sophistication of database and data-mining applications, such as those developed by Palantir. And as part of its agreement with In-Q-Tel, the company shares these technologies with the CIA and other agencies in the Intelligence Community.

In Southern California, it’s the same thing. “In San Diego, 13 federal and local law enforcement agencies have compiled more than 36 million license-plate scans in a regional database since 2010 with the help of federal homeland security grants,” found the Center for Investigative Reporting.

There were efforts to limit it. In 2012, before he was term-limited out of office, state Senator Joe Simitian, a Democrat, introduced a bill that would have required law enforcement agencies and companies that collect license-plate data to delete it after 60 days. But the bill died under heavy fire from law enforcement and corporations.

“Do we really want to maintain a database that tracks personal movements of law-abiding citizens in perpetuity? That’s the fundamental question here,” wondered Simitian. “Larger and larger amounts of data collected over longer periods of time provide a very detailed look at the personal movements of private citizens,” he warned.

The scanners are also used by companies, including two, as the Wall Street Journal reported, that were “founded by ‘repo men’ – specialists in repossessing cars or property from deadbeats.” Their camera-equipped cars drive around nationwide to capture license plates, location data, and images, a less conspicuous version of Google Street View cars (Google blurs license plates and faces on Street View, but retains the data in its database).

“What would the 1950s Soviet Union have done with the technology we have now?” wondered Col. Lisa Shay, electrical engineering professor and tracking specialist at the US Military Academy at West Point. “We don’t have a police state in this country, but we have the technology.”

Scary thought. As these technologies are getting ever more sophisticated and cheaper, they spread. Unlike the near-flawless surveillance of our online lives, or of our purchasing habits, these systems cover us still imperfectly, but in real-life situations, out on the street, and leave behind a permanent record of each incident.

This data is then combined into the larger data set on us. It’s Big Data – the era when data has become an asset class. A whole industry of the most creative companies is chasing after this asset class, and startups are getting funded – by the Intelligence Community, no less – based on its promise, and they’re all working hand in glove with their respective governments to maximize their returns. Getting shafted: the people on the street.

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