They’re Watching (Part 2a)

In Part 1, I reviewed the legal state-of-play enabling the surveillance state in South’s 2032 (disturbingly similar to today’s conditions). In this installment and the next, I’ll talk about some of the tools law-enforcement and intelligence agencies have available to monitor people’s activity and communications. Part 3 will talk about countermeasures.

I had to break this into two parts – there’s a lot of ground to cover. Again, I need this for me as much as for your information so I can keep track of what some of my characters are doing to each other.

Tools Available Today

CCTV systems. The use of security cameras in public places has exploded since the 1980s, even though the effectiveness of area surveillance by cameras is at best mixed. It’s hard to get a handle on how many publicly-operated CCTV cameras exist in the U.S. (30 million+?), although we know Chicago PD operates a mixed public-private system with 10,000 cameras and New York City has at least 4500 cameras in Manhattan with another 3000 on the way. Estimates for the United Kingdom swing between 1.85 million and four million, with over 500,000 in London alone (MI-5/Spooks exaggerated only a little bit). Given the continued growth of these networks, it’s likely that by 2032 CCTV density in the U.S. will equal or surpass that of the U.K. today. While some number of these will be broken at any given time, our current experience shows the almost boundless possibilities for abuse of video surveillance.

Facial recognition. Now, tie the CCTV cameras to the rapidly developing discipline of automated facial recognition. Cheap, fast static facial recognition systems (based on still photos rather than full-motion video) have already been deployed, although they work best when given full-face photos. Experiments in real-time video facial recognition so far have had mixed success (high false-positive rates), but development continues as cameras improve. We likely won’t have to wait very long before the systems MI-5’s Section D used will not only be operational, but relatively cheap, meaning your movements can be tracked and recorded for any or no reason at all even without a cell phone on your person. In South, facial recognition is used not only on pedestrians but on drivers and passengers in private vehicles.

License-plate tracking. Also allied with CCTV networks is the use of automatic license-plate recognition (ALPR) systems. ALPR systems read license plates, then make a record of where and when the attached vehicle was found. These systems can be used with static CCTV or traffic cameras or cameras mounted on vehicles and aren’t limited to law-enforcement use (insurance, repo and towing companies and toll roads also use them). Scandals in Canada and New York City show how these systems can be abused.

Penetrative scanning. Those full-body scanners you love so much at the airport are now deployed in vehicles (to X-ray passing cars) and border crossings. This allows the operators to search you and your car without a warrant or probably cause.

Pen register. A device or system that records all the numbers called by a particular phone, or IP addresses accessed by a computer. These days, it’s usually deployed at the exchange or switch servicing the primary network being used.

Trap-and-trace system. A device or system that records all the numbers that call a particular phone, or the IP addresses of computers that access a particular computer or server. Like the pen register, it’s usually deployed at a switch or exchange. Pen registers and trap-and-trace systems are usually used together to capture all the connection activities of a phone or computer.

Tower dump. What you get when you ask for a report of all the numbers that accessed a particular cell tower over a specified period of time. This may mean every phone that pinged the tower, or every one that used the tower to relay a call (either originating or receiving, or a handoff of an existing connection). As long as your phone is on, it continues to ping the network in order to be ready to send or receive calls. It’s worth mentioning that trap-and-trace, pen registers and tower dumps are so common, the network operators have standard price lists for these services.

[Addition on 15 August]
The telecommunications companies are working hard to create standards across the English-speaking world for electronic eavesdropping and providing private data to governments. This, of course, will help them make bigger profits from those standard rates.
[End addition]

Cell-phone location tracking. This involves using cellular networks to track the paths, start and stop times of a person or vehicle carrying a cell phone. This may be through triangulating data from tower dumps, or by using the GPS data tied to E911 service accessed by every modern cell phone. [Added on 15 Aug] The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals just ruled in U.S. v. Skinner that law enforcement agencies don’t need warrants for cell-phone GPS location data, just a cooperative network provider. [End addition] At this point, if you’re not yet wondering why you carry an electronic spy in your pocket, you’re just not paying attention.

Blanket communications intercepts. As I mentioned in Part 1, the National Security Agency is building in Utah a huge facility that will store, decrypt, translate, process and catalog voice and data communications captured by NSA systems around the world, including within the U.S. This program started with ECHELON and would have fit into the now-discredited Total Information Awareness program championed by John Poindexter (an alumnus of the Iran/Contra scandal), which now continues under other guises.

GPS tracking. The use of GPS tracking devices has spread rapidly throughout both private industry and the government. You, Joe/Jane Citizen, can buy GPS tracking units through any number of sources and watch the fun on your PC. White Collar’s Neil Caffrey wears one on his ankle, as do thousands of real-life parolees. The legal status of LEO use of these trackers is confused; many states have laws barring it except after issuance of a search warrant, and 2009’s U.S. v. Jones ruled against warrantless GPS tracking, but elements of the PATRIOT Act may allow for warrantless tracking if ordered through a National Security Letter.

“Remote hearing.” The use of hidden microphones, laser-assisted eavesdropping devices and sensitive external listening devices (such as high-powered shotgun mikes) is nothing new and will continue with better, smaller and cheaper devices. This can also extend to remotely activating the microphone in a subject’s cell phone or the webcam in his/her computer, both of which are fiendishly hard to detect.

The art and science of tracking financial activities has grown by leaps and bounds in the past couple of decades and would be part of any major surveillance program. However, there’s just too much of it to be included here. Maybe some other time.

Next post, I’ll talk about some new capabilities that have appeared in the 2032 of South.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten or overlooked some of the nifty toys the authorities can use for surveillance. If so, let me know.

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