Privacy, Centralization and Security Cameras

The hosting of the Republican National Convention here in St Paul has one interesting side effect. We finally have our various security and traffic cameras linked together:
“The screens will also show feeds from security cameras controlled by the State Patrol, Minnesota Department of Transportation, and St. Paul, Minneapolis and Metro Transit police departments.
Before the RNC, there was no interface for all the agencies' cameras to be seen in one place. Local officials could continue to use the system after the RNC.” (Emphasis mine)

So now we have state and local traffic cameras, transit cameras and various police cameras all interconnected and viewable from a central place. This alone is inconsequential. When however, a minor thing like this is repeated many times across a broad range of places and technologies and over a long period of time, the sum of the actions are significant. In this case, what’s needed to turn this into something significant is a database to store the surveillance images and a way of connecting the security and traffic surveillance camera images to cell phone roaming data, WIFI roaming data, social network traffic data, Bluetooth scans and RFID data from automobile tires. Hmm…that actually doesn’t sound too difficult, or at least it doesn’t sound too much more difficult than security event correlation in a large open network. Is there any reason to think that something like that will not happen in the future?

If it did, J Edgar Hoover would be proud. The little bits and pieces that we are building to solve daily security and efficiency ‘problems’ are building the foundation of a system that will permit our government to efficiently track anyone, anywhere, anytime. Hoover tried, but his index card system wasn’t quite up to the task. He didn’t have Moore’s Law on his side.

As one of my colleagues indicates, hyper-efficient government is not necessarily a good thing. Institutional inefficiency has some positive properties. In the particular case of the USA there are many small overlapping and uncoordinated units of local, state and federal government and law enforcement. In many cases, these units don’t cooperate with each other and don’t even particularly like each other. There is an obvious inefficiency to this arrangement. But is that a bad thing?

Do we really want our government and police to function as a coordinated, efficient, centralized organization? Or is governmental inefficiency essential to the maintenance of a free society? Would we rather have a society where the efficiency and intrusiveness of the government is such that it is not possible to freely associate or freely communicate with the subversive elements of society? A society where all movements of all people are tracked all the time? Is it possible to have an efficient, centralized government and still have adequate safeguards against the use of centralized information by future governments that are hostile to the citizens?

As I wrote in Privacy, Centralization and Databases last April:

What's even more chilling is that the use of organized, automated data indexing and storage for nefarious purposes has an extraordinary precedent. Edwin Black has concluded that the efficiency of Hollerith punch cards and tabulating machines made possible the extremely "...efficient asset confiscation, ghettoization, deportation, enslaved labor, and, ultimately, annihilation..." of a large group of people that a particular political party found to be undesirable.

History repeats itself. We need to assume that the events of the first half of the twentieth century will re-occur someday, somewhere, with probably greater efficiency.

What are we doing to protect our future?

We are giving good guys full spectrum surveillance capability so that sometime in the future when they decide to be bad guys, they’ll be efficient bad guys.

There have always been bad governments. There always will be bad governments. We just don’t know when.

09/29-2008 - Updated to correct minor grammatical errors.