London Riots and Video Surveillance, Pt.2

My last post was about the lack of any apparent deterrence of rioting from CCTV. However that’s not to say that video surveillance is proving of no use to the authorities. However the way it is being used says a lot about both the limits of CCTV and the general problem of analysis of video images.

As part of ‘Operation Withern’, the investigation into the rioting, the Metropolitan Police have set up a special section of their website, London Disorder Images, as well as on Flickr, which is essentially crowdsourcing the identification of suspects. Despite being the most well-resourced police force in the UK, the Met lacks the resources, time and expertise to analyse and identify everyone it wishes to identify itself, and with widespread popular anger about the riots, they are banking on opening up the process of surveillance and identification as being more efficient and effective – and they may well be right.

Of course, with the problems of lighting, angle, distances, and image quality, the images vary in identifiability – and bear in mind that the few posted so far are probably amongst the best ones – and no doubt there will be many misidentifications. And, in addition, hundreds of people are already being processed through magistrates courts without much need to video evidence. But it is a tactic we are seeing more and more in many places (e.g. Toronto, following the G20 disturbances).

Biometrics in Afghanistan

There’s a very interesting video-report from Sebastian Meyer here on the US military use of biometrics in Afghanistan to try to identify Taliban in what he calls ‘frontline anthropology’. Wired revealed last month that the NATO / US army operation is planned to be expanded into a nationwide biometric ID card scheme by next May. Wired says that there are only two biometric systems operating in Afghanistan but they don’t seem to have noticed that the UNHCR mission in the country is also using biometrics to identify returnees who  have already claimed the financial assistance on offer and are making fraudulent claims, in conjunction with the Afghan government. Are these systems all connected? More investigation is needed…

City of Leon to install mass public iris-scanning

The City of Leon in Mexico, if a report in Fast Company are to be believed, is going ahead with a scheme that goes far further than any other urban surveillance project yet in existence. They are already installing scanners that according to their manufacturers, Global Rainmakers Inc., an until recently secretive company with ties to US military operations, can read the irises of up to 50 people per minute.

Now, we have to be careful here. Gizmondo, as usual has gone way over the top with reports of ‘the end of privacy’ (which, if you believed their stories has already happened as many times as the apocalypse for 7th Day Adventists…) and talk of the ‘entire city’ being covered and ‘real-world’ operations (i.e. in uncontrolled settings). In fact, if you read the  Fast Company report, and indeed the actual description of the products from the company, they are far more limited even in their claims (which are likely to be exaggerated anyway). There is no indication that the iris scanners proposed will work in uncontrolled settings. When the company talk about the scanners working ‘on the fly’, they mean that they will work when someone is basically looking at the scanner or near enough whilst no more than 2 metres away (in the most advanced and expensive model and significantly less for most of them) and moving at no more than 1.5 metres per second (and, again, slower for the lower range devices). All the examples on the company website show ‘pinch points’ being used (walls, fences, gates etc.) to channel those being identified towards the scanner. In other words, they would not necessarily work in wide public streets or squares anyway and certainly not when people were moving freely.

So is this what is being proposed? Well, there are two phases of the partnership with Leon that the company has announced – and we have as yet no word from Leon itself on this. Phase I will cover the settings in which one might expect levels of access control to be high: prisons, police stations etc. Phase II will supposedly cover “mass transit, medical centers and banks, among other [unnammed] public and private locations”. It is also worth noting that the scheme’s enrolment is limited to convicted criminals, with all other enrolment on an entirely voluntary basis.

I am not saying that this is not highly concerning – it is. But we need to be careful of all kinds of things here. First of all, the Fast Company report is pure corporate PR, and the dreams of the CEO of Rainmakers, Jeff Carter (basically, world domination and ‘the end of fraud’ – ha ha ha, as if…) are the same kind of macho bulltoffee that one would expect from any thrusting executive in a newish company in a highly competitive marketplace. Secondly, there’s a whole lot of space here for both technological failure and resistance. The current government Leon may well find that the adverse publicity from this will lose rather than gain them votes and that in itself could see the end of the scheme, or its being limited to Phase I. In addition, without this being part of wider national networks, there may in the end be little real incentive for anyone to enrol voluntarily in this. Why would banks in Leon require this form of identification but not those in Mexico City or Toluca for example? Will the city authorities force everyone who use public transport to undergo an iris scan (which would make the ‘voluntary’ enrolment a sham)? This could all end being as insignificant as the Mexican companies offering RFID implants as a supposed antidote to kidnapping, it could be the start of a seismic shift in the nature of urban space, or it could be a messy mixture.

I hope my colleagues in Mexico are paying attention though – and I will try to keep updated on what’s really going on beyond the corporate PR.

Further details on the new UK government’s Civil Liberties agenda

The UK full coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat parties has just been published. It includes a section on civil liberties which is much more than we could have hoped for and which makes no mention of rolling back the Human Rights Act or the more ludicrous fringe Conservative demands… In full it is as follows:

“The parties agree to implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour government and roll back state intrusion.

This will include:

• A freedom or great repeal bill;

• The scrapping of the ID card scheme, the national identity register, the next generation of biometric passports and the Contact Point database;

• Outlawing the fingerprinting of children at school without parental permission;

• The extension of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency;

• Adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database;

• The protection of historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury;

• The restoration of rights to non-violent protest;

• The review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech;

• Safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation;

• Further regulation of CCTV;

• Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason;

• A new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.”

All of these points are excellent. They lack detail of course, and the devil is always in the detail, and I would have liked to have seen a little more on what would be included in the ‘great repeal’ given that later it only talks about ‘safeguards’ against the abuse of anti-terrorism laws, but really this is as good as anyone could have hoped for, even, though they may not admit it, many of the more socially-liberal Labour Party supporters. The reform of libel laws and commitment to transparency is equally as welcome as the rolling back or regulation of surveillance, and this seems to extend into other parts of the agreement for the reform of government and elections. I hope the eventual full programme will also include some rationalisation of the crazy landscape of multiple ‘commissions’ to regulate different aspects of state-citizen information relations, in favour of an expanded and more powerful Information Commissioner’s Office, but we will see. However, this is a great start (and I never, ever, thought I would be saying that about a Conservative government…).

UK ID Card Program scrapped after election (and more)

As both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats in the UK had the scrapping of the National Identity Card card scheme as part of their manifesto, the unpopular program has been suspended immediately by the new coalition government, pending further announcements.

The full statement reads as follows:

“Both Parties that now form the new Government stated in their manifestos that they will cancel Identity Cards and the National Identity Register. We will announce in due course how this will be achieved. Applications can continue to be made for ID cards but we would advise anyone thinking of applying to wait for further announcements.

Until Parliament agrees otherwise, identity cards remain valid and as such can still be used as an identity document and for travel within Europe. We will update you with further information as soon as we have it.”

But although the cards will almost certainly go, despite the statement it is unclear yet what will be the fate of the National Identity Register (NIR), the new central database at the heart of the scheme. Neither party, and the Tories especially, said anything specific in their manifestos about scrapping the database, so we will see what happens here – although the statement issued seems categorical about this too. Although the end of the card scheme reduces opportunities for the ‘papers, please’ style abuse of minorities, it is the database that is of biggest concern to those interested in surveillance and social sorting. I have long favoured a secure central government Information Clearinghouse, which whilst transferring necessary information as needed and consented to between different parts of government, would not in itself hold any data. I suspect however, that some fudge will emerge!

In the meantime, the price of the coalition also was reported to include new legislation regulating video surveillance (CCTV) cameras (only about 20 years too late, but that’s the speed of British politics for you), and the review of many of the new powers in the (Anti-)Terrorism and Civil Contingencies Acts (and perhaps the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act too – though it hasn’t yet been mentioned specifically). It is very rare that legislation is repealed or rolled back but we may yet see an increase in civil liberties under the new coalition. The one big worry in this are though is the Conservative opposition to the Human Rights Act – however with their Liberal Democrat partners being committed to the HRA, I can’t see any moves to repeal the act in this Parliament.

I am cautiously optimistic…