Continuous Surveillance: Tomorrow's "Air" Traffic Control

Jim Amrhein examines exactly how close the United States is to being in a state of Continuous Surveillance.

“The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”
— Thomas Jefferson

“Big Brother is watching you.”
— George Orwell, 1984

RECENTLY, I WAS at the rifle range, enjoying my freedom to shoot guns on a crisp fall day in America — and doing a pretty fair job of punching snug clusters of holes in bull’s-eyes a football field away, I might add. While taking a break to let the barrel of one of my rifles cool off, I noticed a man a few stations down the firing line whom I’d seen and talked to several times before, both at the range and at various gun shows and sportsmen’s gatherings in the area.

He was taking a break, too, and we struck up a conversation. One rifle I had was a model that interested him, and he asked if he could take my number and ask me questions about it in the future, should he decide to buy one for himself…

“Of course,” I said, always eager to exchange information with another firearms enthusiast. At the end of our shooting session, we packed up and walked out together, and at our trucks, I pulled out my cell phone to take down the man’s number. I thought it a bit odd that he didn’t reach for his own (it hung right there on his belt) to punch in and save my number. Instead, he fished around in his truck for a pen and paper, and asked me to write it down for him.

Thinking he was simply a little techno-tarded and hadn’t figured out how to program his cell phone, I wrote my number down for him. But when I prepared to punch in and save his digits on my phone, he declined to give them. “Nothing personal,” he said, “It’s just that I never give out my cell number. They listen, you see…”

Of course, he ended up talking to me for another 15 minutes about the feds and their surveillance technologies — some real, some imagined, I’m sure. And not to perpetuate any stereotypes about the kinds of paranoiacs that many people think frequent shooting ranges and gun shows, but in that span of time, I discovered that this fellow — who by all outward appearances is an upstanding citizen who’s financially solvent, articulate, and clearly of above-average intelligence — really believes that our government is listening to everything we say and watching almost everything we do.

As I drove home, I thought two things: The first was “God, I’m glad I’m not like him,” and the second — which occurred to me as I scooted through a camera-equipped intersection in the last milliseconds of a yellow light — was…

“God, what if he’s right?”

Continuous Surveillance: Legalized Privacy Piracy

Almost a year ago (Feb. 8, 2005), I wrote to you about the government’s subtle attempts under the Bush administration to reclassify the Global Positioning System (GPS) — under the auspices of increasing security, of course — in ways that could move us closer to a state of more or less continuous surveillance of everyone. One of the primary ways in which this could happen is when cell phones become personal navigation devices. This is already happening with at least one major cellular carrier, Nextel. Their service offers two types of GPS-based real-time mapping that guides you to your destination with voice prompts from your cell phone.

Now to me, the idea of being told where to go by my cell phone is kind of creepy (although it would be funny if I could get a voice that directs me with a New York cabbie accent: “Turn right here, you friggin’ moron tourist!”). I’d rather make a few wrong turns getting where I’m going than have my travels recorded in some GPS database somewhere. But I digress…

My point is: The capability to track your personal whereabouts as long as you’re in range of a cell phone network (which is practically everywhere) certainly exists — in fact, it’s already happening, as you’ll learn in a second. And if you think the government isn’t interested in this data, think again. Here’s the story:

According to recent articles in The (Baltimore) Sun newspaper, the Associated Press and other sources, signals from one major cellular carrier’s telephones (Cingular) have been tracked continuously in the 600-square-mile Baltimore metropolitan area since early 2005. An even more ambitious, statewide program of the same type is under way in Missouri, but using all cell phone carriers.

Ostensibly, this “bulk” surveillance — which does not use GPS, but tracks position and speed based on transitions between cellular towers — is being deployed only for the innocuous purpose of detecting traffic backups and slowdowns. Using nearly $2 million in federal funds (does this mean the feds have rights to the data?), Maryland’s State Highway Administration is excited about the system, according to the Sun article.

And they should be. Not since those dastardly stoplight cameras that automatically “click it and ticket” whoever’s in their field of view when the light changes has there been a lower-cost form of revenue generation and traffic enforcement on their radar (no pun intended). Think about it: If this tracking system — which is not marketed by Cingular, but by a Canada-based tech firm named Delcan — can precisely calculate a vehicle’s speed by the time elapsed between cell tower “handoffs,” how long will it be before the state starts using this technology to start handing out speeding tickets (or tracking minors, or monitoring “persons of interest”) based on this information?

At the very least, they’ll be able to use the data to fine-tune where to put their speed traps every day. That revenue alone would surely eclipse the money they’re paying to use the information many times over.

Of course, the Sun article maintains Cingular stipulated that no information about any customer of theirs would ever be released to anyone — not even to cops bearing warrants. And likewise, the Delcan folks insist that their embedded software technology is not aimed at pinpointing individual signals, but at complex algorithms that combine multiple signals into a snapshot of average speeds through their many coverage zones…

But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that somewhere in this technological muddle lies the capability to track individuals — it must, for it’s individual cell phone signals that are mathematically combined to provide the “rolling average” of speeds and routes used to measure traffic flow. According to the Sun piece, an attorney for at least one group of privacy advocates (the Electronic Frontier Foundation) claims this system unquestionably offers the surveillance infrastructure to do just that. Just because it isn’t being used that way YET doesn’t mean it won’t be in the near future.

Above all, let’s not forget that cell phones are RADIOS. And as such, they ultimately fall under the purview of the FCC. So believe me, if the feds want Delcan or Cingular or whoever to cough up data on an individual’s travels badly enough, it has the power to force the issue, especially if the trend in law enforcement techniques continues on its present course.

And if they want to listen in on your conversations, they could probably do that, too. Keep reading…


Continuous Surveillance: Star of the Great American Reality TV Show: You

I wouldn’t be so worried about all this except for some of the news I’ve been hearing about government abuses of surveillance power in contemporary America. A few cases in point:

  • The government’s issuance of special “national security letters” (in existence since the ’70s) allowing for federal access to people’s phone and e-mail records, Web usage, and financial data has skyrocketed 100-fold since the passage of the Patriot Act — to a modern total of 30,000 per year. Under the Act, persons whose lives are scrutinized need no longer be under suspicion of a federal crime. This provision of the Patriot Act is permanent, unless struck down in federal court. (Source: Associated Press, Nov. 6, 2005)
  • Heavily censored, incomplete records collected as part of a lawsuit to enforce the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the FBI engages in a startling amount of “domestic spying” on U.S. residents without proper oversight and with little accountability. These papers reveal extended surveillance periods on individuals of as long as 5 years in violation of Justice Department guidelines. At least 287 such violations were identified by the FBI itself between 2002-2004 in just 13 cases referred to the Intelligence Oversight Board. Imagine how many there are in the 1700 such cases opened in court last year alone. Remember, these are just the ones in which there’s enough of a paper trail to make a case. (Source: The Washington Post, Oct. 24, 2005)

Now before you dismiss me as a paranoiac, let me just say this: I have no doubt that the immediate intent of this newest surveillance stunt is indeed to help better manage traffic flow at the local level. After all, it’s in states’ best interests (in some ways) to avoid building or expanding roads if they can merely place electronic signs every few miles in tricky traffic zones warning folks to circumvent an approaching slowdown…

The problem is that cutting-edge technology rarely stays contained. GPS itself is a perfect example. Originally designed as a military-only tool for targeting and troop movement coordination, the system is now on boats, in cars, in hand-held navigation units and in cell phones. And once Big Brother figures out that the average citizen won’t make a fuss about his or her cell phone being tracked (and most won’t even know it’s happening), that’s one more way in which the government will be able to insinuate itself into your personal life — and one more way in which you’ll be living “on the record.” It’s not hard to imagine the ramifications, just hard to imagine it actually happening in the United States.

So before you scoff at the notion of “continuous surveillance of everyone” as being impossible, consider this: 15 years ago, if I’d told you that there would be cameras instead of cops enforcing traffic law; that you’d be on screen at every cash machine and in every store at the mall; that when you went to the airport, your face was being scanned, computer-analyzed and recorded in some government monster-computer; that marketing companies would be able to access and analyze your online browsing tendencies and spending habits, and then target specific ads to you based on the information; or that your every trip was being tracked by your portable phone, would you have listened and believed?

Or would you have thought of me the way I thought of that man at the rifle range who wouldn’t give me his phone number?

Here’s another way to look at this: I’m going on an overnight trip to Florida this week. On the way to the Baltimore/Washington International Airport, I’ll drive through the camera-equipped stoplight near my house and a half dozen more just like it before I hit the highway. I’ll drive under at least a dozen bridges on the Baltimore Beltway and I-95 south approaching the airport. If I have my cell phone on, some logarithm will have been keeping track of how fast I was going and what route I took to get to there. I’ll enter the airport parking garage under security cameras. I’ll walk through the lobby cameras, get snapped again at the cash machine, and finally scanned and photographed a dozen ways from Sunday at the security station before heading for the gate…

I’ll have been on 50 different cameras and been tracked every inch of my journey — and I won’t even have taken off yet.

Still think I’m nuts to believe we’re heading for a state of continuous surveillance?

Not believing what they’re seeing,

Jim Amrhein
Contributing Editor,
Whiskey & Gunpowder
December 2, 2005