Self-censorship in the digital age : We won’t be able to recognize ourselves

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Police Chief Herbert Schenkelberg noted that German law restricts police control of the surveillance, but allows private cameras everywhere they are not explicitly forbidden, which offered a solution.   According to the Chief, the Authorities had been able to crack the July 31, 2006 suitcase bomb case (planted on German regional trains) using video recordings – provided by the “private” Deutsche Bahn.

In 2013, 30.000 new CCTV cameras have been installed in Venezuela
In 2013, 30.000 new CCTV cameras have been installed in Venezuela : Bild: REUTERS

„The Duesseldorf police chief observed that a majority of citizens do not seem to have a problem with video surveillance in public locations, while they strongly oppose telephone tapping and internet surveillance.  [M]ost people do not feel „watched,“ but rather safer, as public perceptions tend to focus on social groups such as drug dealers, alcoholics or groups of disruptive youth. The public tends not to know the difference between police and non-police surveillance, he stated.“

The American summed up: If Schenkelberg is correct that the German public tends to object less to video than to other forms of surveillance by law enforcement, German popular sentiment against „big brother“ type  activity was “nuanced.”

Since 2008, video surveillance has morphed.   Chief Schenkelberg worried about its poor resolution and the need for someone to monitor the video feed.  With facial recognition free on Facebook and many other sites, we know that the NSA and other agencies are using the billions of identified faces to improve their own recognition programs.  But recognition is only the beginning – infrared scans for health have become a commonplace at airports and facial micro-movements (looking for suicide bombers) are part of the Russian security scanning system at the Olympic games in Sochi.

Blurring boundaries

Bubbling with enthusiasm, the business world is full of new reports on the hot rising company Sensity that aims (like so many others) to widen surveillance.  The company’s CEO, Hugh Martin, points out that the previous revolutions in communication (telephones and telegraphs) exploited an existing infrastructure – railway tracks.  Now his company is eyeing the world’s three billion streetlamps – now being upgraded to include a direct current power source so they can use LED’s instead of the vastly more expensive traditional lights. But once you’ve put in a DC power supply, he says, why not add cheap Internet-connected sensors, so you can get online access to video, seismic, ambient light, audio, and anything else you care to network. Facial detection, suspicious activities like “loitering,” left-object registration, gun shot location?   Name your sensor.  El Salvador has signed up. Newark Airport is putting in the surveillant lighting, as the New York Times reported in February 2014. VentureBeat quotes Martin,

“A global network collecting data like this is something we’ve never seen the like of before. And its capabilities are potentially vastly greater than anything the NSA has done in terms of Prism and XKeyScore. A network of smart lights that are capable of recording audio and video, where it can be shot up to the cloud and analyzed by apps, potentially, that have face-recognition capabilities, is at least slightly Orwellian.  My TV may not be watching me, but my streetlamp could.”

In a world of venture capital security, private contractors and inter-government counter-terrorism, the distinction between government and company fades. “We are definitely going to help foster the discussion of discussion of privacy versus security,” VentureBeat relays, with what the business magazine labels “the understatement of the century.”

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