Granted, in today’s society this story probably isn’t considered odd or weird – just everyday life in our super-connected global community. However, if you could go back in time about 50 years or so and tell someone about all the surveillance that’s happening these days they probably would think you are crazy. It’s funny how crazy gradually evolves into normal, isn’t it?
The NSA scandal put a bright spotlight on the kind of activity that’s been going on under our noses for quite a while. Many suspected that these kinds of things were happening and the whole Snowden-NSA scandal just confirmed it for the world to see. A lot of crow has been consumed by former “skeptics” who scoffed at the idea of such far-reaching government surveillance before we all learned just how deep the rabbit hole really goes.
1. Security Cameras
There’s no doubt that security cameras have their place. Many homeowners and businesses have used them to discourage criminals and prevented who-knows-how-many crimes. There are also numerous cases where criminals were captured because of security cameras. Like so many other things in life, they can be used for both good and bad. Just as a kitchen knife can be used to simply cut up some carrots, it can also be used to stab someone to death. Similarly, cameras can be used to deter crime for the greater good or spy on people who don’t even know they are being watched. Even staunch privacy advocates aren’t likely to oppose people using cameras on their own property, but whether or not every street corner and public park needs to be monitored 24/7 is another matter. Is that safety or is that just spying? You decide.
2. Cell Phones
Your cell phone (or “mobile”) is one of the best spy tools ever conceived of. Although not everyone knows, cell phones are constantly communicating with the sites that make up the network. Even without GPS, the approximate location of a cell phone could be determined by using triangulation – measuring the strength and direction of the phone’s signal from multiple sites. But heck, triangulation is old school! With GPS built into virtually every cell phone on the market, your own phone will happily reveal your location even more accurately. Sure, there are settings on a lot of phones that are supposed to allow you to set it so that it will reveal your location only when you are calling for emergency services, but do you really believe that “they” can’t use the GPS in your phone to track you when they want? The next time you pass one of those towers topped with cellular antennas, think of it is a big creepy spy looking over your shoulder as you pass by, because that’s pretty much what it is.
3. Credit and Debit Cards
How many crime programs have you seen where the authorities have used credit or debit card records to track down a criminal or use it to prove someone’s guilt? Again, there are appropriate uses for these records. Who is going to argue that tracking some murderer who’s using a victim’s credit card is a bad thing? But pointing out the appropriate uses of that technology is not what we’re focusing on today. It’s those “other” uses that have a lot of people very concerned. Each time you use a credit or debit card somewhere it’s like leaving your footprints behind. That record says where you were, when you were there and what you bought at the very least. Oh, by the way, if the digital footprint you left behind is not enough ammunition for someone who may be trying to prove you did something, don’t worry! The security camera probably captured footage of you while you where there.
4. The Internet
Although this one could have been broken down into separate topics such as search engines, social media, online shopping, ISP snooping, wi-fi hacking and probably a hundred others, we’ll just keep it simple. A few key things to remember about using the internet: You’re being tracked just about everywhere you go. Websites record your visits and activity when you surf around the net. For the most part, that kind of information gathering is legitimate and does not contain information that can be traced back to you. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to trace it back to you, it just means that the vast majority of website operators cannot trace it back to you. For the authorities it’s another matter, since they can combine data from websites you visit with data that your internet service provider has and track you right to your doorstep. In most cases (depending on where you live), they are supposed to follow strict legal guidelines and obtain approval from the courts, but how can we be certain they are even doing that? A whole book could be written on this topic, and most likely has, but just keep this in mind. Things you put out on the internet (pictures, Facebook posts, comments, etc.) aren’t ever coming back. They’re “out there” and you have no control over how those things will be used. It’s kind of like jumping off a bridge – the moment your feet leave that surface, it’s too late to decide you really didn’t want to die today.
These are more-or-less the new kids on the block. The military has been using them for years to blow up alleged terrorists and other people the government doesn’t like very much. Very few of us have access to the kind of super high-tech drones that the armed forces are using, but you might be surprised to find out that anyone can jump online and order up their very own surveillance drone! These things come equipped with cameras that beam images back to the operator as they fly about here and there. Got a hot neighbor who enjoys a little topless sunbathing from time to time out by the pool? A spy drone is the ultimate must-have for your modern-day peeping tom! Not trying to beat a dead horse here, but again, this is something that can be used for both legitimate and not-so-legitimate purposes. It’s the person at the controls that decides who lives, who dies or whose half-nude body shows up on YouTube. Drones are just machines and are not able to decide on their own who to blow up or who to film by the swimming pool – at least not yet.
6. Your Automobile
Did you know that many modern automobiles are now equipped with “black boxes” just like airplanes? With these devices it’s possible to record your driving habits, such as how often you speed. They can be examined after a traffic accident and reveal how fast someone was going at the time of the crash, when they applied their brakes, whether or not they tried to steer clear of the collision and so on. Combine that ability with built-in GPS and you may as well have an NSA chaperone riding shotgun with you everywhere you go. A recent comment by a Ford Motor Company executive was retracted after he said something to the effect that Ford could tell when drivers where speeding and where they were when they did it. Believe it or not, the statement was made by Ford’s “Global Vice President for Marketing and Sales.” There’s little reason to doubt that what he said is factual. What’s not so clear is whether or not anyone is actually doing it.
What shutterbug doesn’t just love their digital camera? Those of us who remember the days of “real” film can hardly believe how great this new innovation is! It seems like you can shoot for days with some of these new cameras and never have to worry about swapping out for a fresh roll of film and then waiting for someone to develop the pictures for us. What many folks may not know is that it’s not just the images of little Sally’s birthday party or those great shots from your vacation to Yellowstone that are stored on those nifty little memory cards. Digital cameras also store a lot of “meta data” along with each snapshot. Interesting things like where exactly the camera was when you took the picture. Not every camera has GPS these days but it is showing up in more and more new models. Since so many phones are also cameras, the same thing holds true for them. Yes, a lot of the meta data stored with digital photos is useful, things like shutter speed and F-stop and all that geeky shutterbug stuff. Still, it’s good to know what exactly it is you are putting out there when you upload photos to Facebook or any other site on the internet. Unless you go through the trouble to “scrub” the meta data from the images before uploading them to the net, you can’t be sure that you’re not uploading that meta data along with it for anyone to see.
8. Facial Recognition
Now we’re starting to get into the real creepy stuff. Image recognition technology has reached the point where it’s possible to identify a person based on their facial features. Images are captured by cameras and then processed by computers which compare the images with a database that contains images of known persons. These systems are capable of constructing mathematical models based on facial features such as the distance between a person’s eyes. There are also technology companies that are actively working on new technology that would allow for searches of images online in a whole new way. For now we may be limited to typing someone’s name into Google image search or Flickr, but in the future you may be able to scan or upload a photo to your PC and then have a search engine locate other photos that match the one you already have. All kinds of ugly things come to mind when one thinks about what a child molester might be able to do with a picture of a child he finds on the internet or one that he secretly snaps at the shopping mall or playground. Remember, when you put anything out on the internet, you lose control of it forever.
9. License Plate Readers
Although this might have been classified under “Security Cameras,” we think it deserves its own topic. Some people may have begun to notice odd-looking devices mounted on police vehicles in recent years. They may or may not look like a camera but they are normally pretty conspicuous since they are often mounted on the roof or trunk of the vehicle. The technology behind these devices is pretty impressive, but some people are not so impressed with the amount of random data they are scooping up. As the name suggests, these special cameras are able to read the numbers and letters on vehicle license plates. The numbers can be processed by a computer in the police vehicle and compared to a database of wanted or stolen vehicles. It can make these comparisons at an impressively rapid pace – checking passing cars as the police cruise down the street. The device will alert them if they pass a vehicle that is wanted for one reason or another. The placement of these cameras is not limited to police vehicles. They could also be placed by the freeway or at a busy intersection. Sounds like a great tool for catching bad guys but the questions always looming is: Who’s watching the watchers?