Big data is watch­ing

Our view: Mary­land is on the cusp of a rev­o­lu­tion in sur­veil­lance tech­nol­ogy; now is the time to set lim­its on how it is used

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND VOICES -

The ACLU of Mary­land and other civil lib­er­ties groups are con­cerned by re­ports that Mary­land po­lice are us­ing so­phis­ti­cated fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nolo­gies to iden­tify peo­ple by match­ing thema­gainst mil­lions of im­ages from the state’s mo­tor ve­hi­cle archives. We share those con­cerns, even as we rec­og­nize the tech­nol­ogy’s po­ten­tial to as­sist in le­git­i­mate law en­force­ment ac­tiv­i­ties. Though the tech­nol­ogy is still in its in­fancy, it is de­vel­op­ing rapidly. Even if it doesn’t pose an im­me­di­ate threat to ci­ti­zens’ pri­vacy rights, there’s no as­sur­ance it won’t in the fu­ture. In the in­ter­ests of trans­parency, the pub­lic needs to know where and for what pur­pose the equipment is be­ing used and what guide­lines, if any, are in place to en­sure against its mis­use.

The is­sue has gained promi­nence fol­low­ing re­cent rev­e­la­tions of other mass sur­veil­lance pro­grams that in some cases have been op­er­at­ing qui­etly out of pub­lic view for years. What they all have in com­mon is the ca­pac­ity to scoop up mas­sive amounts of data, in­clud­ing so­cial me­dia posts and, re­cently in Bal­ti­more, aerial pho­to­graphs, which po­lice can then use to track the move­ments and lo­ca­tion of peo­ple over a wide area.

We aren’t in “1984” ter­ri­tory yet, but the prospect is real enough to have prompted civil rights groups to com­plain in Au­gust that the Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment’s use of the cell phone track­ing tech­nol­ogy known as stingray was both il­le­gal and racially dis­crim­i­na­tory. That same month city po­lice ac­knowl­edged that a pri­vate com­pany has been con­duct­ing se­cret sur­veil­lance flights over some city neigh­bor­hoods on be­half of po­lice, and last month The Sun re­ported that po­lice in Bal­ti­more and sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties had hired the so­cial me­dia mon­i­tor­ing com­pany Ge­ofee­dia to fer­ret out sus­pi­cious or po­ten­tially threat­en­ing posts on sites like Face­book, In­sta­gram and Twit­ter. The fact that the po­lice depart­ment ig­nored the re­peated ad­vice of the aerial sur­veil­lance ven­dor to hold pub­lic out­reach be­fore de­ploy­ing the tech­nol­ogy re­in­forces the con­cern that gov­ern­ment is deaf to these con­cerns.

To be sure, the new tech­nolo­gies can pro­vide crit­i­cal help to law-en­force­ment in solv­ing high-pro­file crimes and bring­ing dan­ger­ous fugi­tives to jus­tice. It isn’t per­fect, but it’s im­prov­ing rapidly. Fa­cial recog­ni­tion soft­ware wasn’t able to iden­tify the per­pe­tra­tors of the Bos­ton Marathon bomb­ing in 2013 (at least not more quickly than tra­di­tional meth­ods did). Two years later, au­thor­i­ties were able to use it to iden­tify some Is­lamic State mil­i­tants who at­tacked Paris, and se­cu­rity of­fi­cials hope one day to be able to use it to de­tect known­ter­ror­ists as they ap­proach air­ports or other pub­lic places.

But ev­ery new tech­nol­ogy also car­ries the po­ten­tial for abuse. Po­lice in Bal­ti­more, for ex­am­ple, have yet to make clear which neigh­bor­hoods they have tar­geted for sur­veil­lance, whether the tech­nolo­gies em­ployed there have re­sulted in ar­rests or con­vic­tions and whether African-Amer­i­cans are be­ing dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fected by the pro­gram. It’s one thing to track a per­son sus­pected of com­mit­ting a spe­cific crime but quite an­other to mon­i­tor thou­sands of in­no­cent peo­ple with­out their knowl­edge sim­ply Bal­ti­more Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Kevin Davis did not heed ad­vice to pub­li­cize an aerial sur­veil­lance pro­gram in ad­vance. be­cause they hap­pen to live in a high-crime neigh­bor­hood or at­tend a pub­lic event. We’re par­tic­u­larly con­cerned by re­ports that po­lice have used tech­nol­ogy to cap­ture in­for­ma­tion about peace­ful pro­test­ers at Black Lives Mat­ter events. Such sur­veil­lance ob­vi­ously has the po­ten­tial to have a chilling ef­fect on peo­ple ex­er­cis­ing their First Amend­ment rights.

We are also con­cerned about the po­ten­tial blur­ring be­tween law en­force­ment and com­mer­cial uses of the data. Of­fi­cials at Per­sis­tent Sur­veil­lance, the com­pany be­hind Bal­ti­more’s sur­veil­lance plane, say they are ex­plor­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to sell data to pri­vate clients — for ex­am­ple, to in­sur­ance com­pa­nies that might have an in­ter­est in im­ages that could show who is at fault in auto ac­ci­dents. Could it go far­ther? Could com­pa­nies pay to keep tabs on the com­ings and go­ings of their com­peti­tors? Could it even­tu­ally amass com­mer­cially valu­able data about the ac­tiv­i­ties of iden­ti­fi­able in­di­vid­u­als? Granted, com­pa­nies like Google and Face­book al­ready know a great deal about us, but only be­cause of our choice to use their prod­ucts, not as an in­evitable re­sult of liv­ing in Bal­ti­more.

Mary­land is on the cut­ting edge of a rev­o­lu­tion in sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies. Its data­base in­cludes more than 7 mil­lion im­ages from the Mary­land Mo­tor Ve­hi­cle Ad­min­is­tra­tion and more than 3 mil­lion mug shots and other pho­to­graphs of ar­restees, mak­ing it one of the largest such archives in the coun­try. And its mon­i­tor­ing pro­grams could soon be­come even more per­va­sive if they are even­tu­ally linked to im­agery from Bal­ti­more’s hun­dreds of Ci­tiWatch cam­eras, new gun­shot de­tec­tion sys­tems and aerial sur­veil­lance. We are just at the be­gin­ning of a process that could end with bio­met­ric data­bases that lit­er­ally keep tabs on ev­ery­one. We need to set the ground rules now for how this vast trove of in­for­ma­tion will be man­aged and cre­ate mech­a­nisms to en­sure that gov­ern­ment and pri­vate of­fi­cials are held ac­count­able for stick­ing to them.


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