Dawn of the Surveillance Dead

My second zombie story today may be (at least for anti-surveillance advocates) a more positive one. Every since the global credit crunch hit, I have been wondering about its effects on the expansion of the surveillance industry (see here, here, here and here). On the one hand, it could be hit as hard as any other sector, but on the other, security tends to be the one sector that thrives in recessions as crime, or at least fear of crime, rises in these periods. I saw on the UK industry site, Surveillance Park, a story about a report by Plimsoll Analysis, conducted over the summer this year, saying that of 960 companies surveyed in the surveillance field in the UK, 143 have been left in a ‘zombie’ state by the recession. Essentially these companies are the living dead: they look like active companies, they have an offficial existence, but in reality there is nothing alive inside – they stumble on merely to pay off existing debts.

However, whilst this may seem like a significant blow to the ongoing expansion of the surveillance industry – that’s 21% of the companies in the sector in trouble – the industry analysts argue that in fact this provides a further opportunity for market consolidation. They say that 79 of these companies are in fact ripe for take-over.

This is part of a trend we have also been witnessing in the research we are doing currently for the Canadian Federal Privacy Commissioner on the involvement of private companies in border control – see e.g. this story. In my view, what is emerging from the recession is a global surveillance and security industry that will be composed of bigger, more diversified companies – a ‘rationalization’ of the proliferation of small start-ups and spin-offs that started in the 1990s but really took off after the US (and international) response to the 9/11 attacks, which made it clear that there would be long-term state investment in and purchasing of high-tech surveillance and security ‘solutions’. The thing is that for those interested in challenging the onward march of surveillance, this may not be such good news after all – bigger companies with their own institutional structures and cultures, and lucrative guaranteed state contracts, are likely to be far less amenable to influence from the outside.

Night of the Surveillance Dead

In one of those curious synchronicities that occasionally emerge out of the chaotic foam of the internet, I came across two stories (of an entirely different nature) featuring surveillance and ‘zombies’ this week.

The first is one that Ars Technica first publicized recently – the creation of new undeletable cookies. Cookies, for the still unaware, are little bits of code that sit on your computer and store information, usually relating to websites you have visited – so, passwords and the like. Originally they were simply a tool to make it easier to handle the proliferation of sites that needed login details from users. And in most cases, they used to be both moderately consensual (i.e. you would be, or could be, asked if you wanted to have you computer download one) and relatively easy to remove. However, in recent years, this has changed. For a start there are so many sites and applications using cookies that it has become inconvenient to ‘consent’ to them or to manage them in any unautomated way. The new development however is a system that uses the database capabilities in HTML5 rather than being a traditional cookie. The major problem with this, and you can read more about the technical details in the story, is that these cannot ever be deleted by the user, as when they are deleted, they respawn themselves, and recreate the data profile of the user by reaching into other areas of your computer (and even stuff you thought was also deleted). The company concerned, Ringleader Digital, which specializes in ‘targeted, trackable advertising’ for ‘real-time visibility’, says users can ‘opt-out’ by using a form on their website, but this so-called ‘opt-out’ is hedged about with terms and conditions.

Now, Ars Technica reports that an open-source developer, Samy Kamkar, has created ‘evercookie‘, a virtually indestructible cookie designed as an educational tool to make users aware of the presence of these new internet zombies that do their master’s bidding. It’s a neat idea but I wonder – and I hope you will excuse my taking the zombie metaphor just a little further here – whether in raising the dead to show that necromancy is bad, good wizards like Samy Kamkar might in the end just be contributing to the problem. It isn’t as if most ordinary users understand these strange powers. Perhaps the people who need to witness the power of these occult rites are the regulators. It’s not clear to me whether these kinds of programs would be considered in any way legal in most places with strong data-protection and privacy laws, like Canada and the EU – as the controversy over the similar British Telecom system, Phorm, showed. So I would be very interested in what the Canadian Privacy Commissioner has to say about it, for example. I will be asking them.

(The second zombie story I will add later…)

Bigger than Brazil

So says a new IMS report on the surveillance market in Latin America, according to industry site, Surveillance Park.

Brazil’s emergence as an economic power means that there is increasing demand for surveillance both in individual applications and for larger infrastructure projects like the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games. But Brazil already has what the report terms “an established eco-system of suppliers” so, in the face of this strong competition, foreign surveillance companies are advised to look elsewhere, particularly Argentina, Chile and Mexico, whose surveillance markets should provide “long-term double digit growth.

Information-rich animals

Iris scanning has been proposed for horse by a company called Global Animal Management (GAM) Inc. As bloodstock is a huge and lucrative business – feeding everything from the private obsessions of the super-rich through the horseracing industry to the dreams of teenage horse-enthusiasts – it is not surprising to see such investment in biometrics. Racehorses were, after all, the first living creatures to be regularly microchipped. Vets seem sceptical about the idea, but surely members of the medical profession would be more enthusiastic about non-invasive replacements for invasive identification techniques like RFID?

Ironically, support for the scepticism comes form GAM’s own website, where a very interesting short video shows just how comprehensive the surveillance of animals through RFID chips has become. RFID chips do not just identify, they carry whole life-cycle information on origins, movements, health and disease and legal compliances. And because of the chips this information is carried with the animal not simply associated with it via a distant database as the result of an occasional scan. The system creates what GAM calls ‘information-rich animals’, which presumably is what makes GAM – and it hopes, its customers – cash-rich too…

(thanks to Aaron Martin, whose reading now seems to include Horse and Hound magazine…)

Lies, Damned Lies and CCTV Statistics…

Earlier today, I reported on reports that claimed that 96% of US citizens support video surveillance. Now, thanks to Vicki Contavespi, and the people at BRS Labs who commissioned the survey from Harris Interactive, I have the raw figures. And, unsurprisingly enough, whilst they aren’t ‘lies’, they don’t quite show what the headlines suggested – just as my headline, a quote often attributed of course to Disraeli, is also an overstatement of the case at hand. This is a very interesting survey. There were quite a few questions asked, and I don’t have time to go through all of them here now, but I will just deal with the question of ‘support’ for video surveillance and break it down just a little more.

First of all, the main questions on the acceptability of video surveillance (and other surveillance techniques) are couched in an particular way that is common in market research. The lead question is “How strongly do you agree or disagree with each of the following statements?” There is then a list of statements, which each have four options: strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, and strongly disagree. There is no ‘neutral / don’t care / no opinion’ option, which might have taken out many of those in the ‘somewhat’ categories on either side. The headline figures used then, of course, elide the ‘strongly’ and ‘somewhat’ figures.

For video surveillance, there are two main statements, firstly, “The federal government should be able to utilize video surveillance as long as my personal privacy is not invaded”, and secondly, “Local law enforcement should be able to use surveillance cameras to monitor public places.” The first question already contains a bias, in that is specifies a situation of no privacy invasion. This effectively nullifies the most common objection to video surveillance, and especially for those for whom the Federal Government is a intrinsically suspicious entity. The second, interestingly, doesn’t have this proviso, but then ‘local law enforcement’ isn’t ‘the Feds’ and generally does not attract the same antipathy. But the lack of a qualifying statement might provide a better clue to US public attitudes on video surveillance overall. For the first statement, the ‘headline’ figure of agreement is 82% and the second is 78%. However this disguises the fact that ‘strong agreement’ is much more limited, 36 and 35% respectively. And if you add up the ‘somewhat agree’ and ‘somehat disagree’ figures, you get 57% and 58%, which indicates to me that the majority of US people don’t have strong opinions for or against CCTV. See – statistics are all about what you are looking for in them!

What is even more interesting is that the question was then asked: “Which of the following aspects of video surveillance cameras, if any, concern you?” You would think that, given the headline and press release, that the survey showed no real concerns about CCTV. But that really isn’t the case at all. In fact, 88% of respondents said they were concerned by at least one of the listed aspects of video surveillance. Now remember, you’ve only got 18% or 22% who said that they disagreed with CCTV in terms of the question posed above, so this means that even most of the people who supported CCTV to whatever degree of strength, had concerns and most had more than one concern. This is quite striking. The main concerns were “not knowing what will be done with the information that is gathered ” (66%), “The fact that recorded footage can be used to mistakenly incriminate me” (61%), “Not knowing the background of whoever may be watching” (60%), “Not knowing how often and where I might be watched” (50%) and “The fact that photographs can be taken of me without permission” (48%). The only one on which there was significant difference between men and women seems (and I haven’t done any statistical analysis of the difference) to be over the concern about how often and where people might be watched, about which women were more likely to be concerned than men. In fact, in the whole survey, there appear to be no real overt differences in response based on gender.

So where, you might well be asking, does this 96% support figure come from? I searched through the tables some distance for the 96% figure before I found it. It certainly doesn’t refer to generalised support, but comes in response to the following question: “Which of the following areas, if any, do you think should be monitored by video surveillance in an effort to help protect U.S. citizens?” A-ha! So we have a question that implies the use of video surveillance somewhere, and that it will be used specifically to help protect US citizens (none of those foreigners!). The question is clearly pushing the respondents towards a positive answer. But here too things are not quite what the headlines claimed. Certainly, 96% of respondents said that video surveillance should be used in some areas. However, it is only in “Airports” (92%), “Public transportation” (85%) and “Seaports” (82%) that there is an overwhelming vote of confidence (though quite why seaports are considered to be less at risk or would benefit less from video surveillance than airports, I am not quite sure – the ghosts of 9/11 hover, I suppose).

“Public schools/Universities” barely scrape a majority (53%), and one wonders what the figures would be if they split universities and schools (and indeed different levels of school). “Playgrounds” only hit 39% – not so much of the common British ‘think of the kiddies’ paranoia here perhaps – “Businesses” – where of course surveillance is actually more likely to be found than anywhere else! – doesn’t manage a third (32%) and “Local neighborhoods”, which is the only unequivocal ‘public space’ category is only on 22%. Why not parks? Why not city centre streets? It is of course these places where the real controversy and the real fire and debate over CCTV lies. And the indications from this survey are that the more personal, the more intimate, the more there is a sense of ‘community’, the less likely US citizens are to accept video surveillance, even if it is couched in the overly positive way it is here.

And there is a question whose answers demonstrate further the complexity here. And, ironically, the percentage of respondents who replied to the question “Which of the following, if any, do you think are currently the biggest threats to your personal privacy?” with one of more concerns was – you guessed it – 96%! The major concerns were actually mostly from private or criminal surveillance: “identity theft” (74%), “Internet security threats” (70%) and “Unknown individuals who handle my personal information” (60%). Only 33% were concerned about federal or local government, but this isn’t surprising when this category is headed, as it is in the survey, “Big Brother”! Who is going to admit to being scared of ‘Big Brother’? And if you are going to give a silly popular stereotype as a potential answer, then the other categories should be similarly labelled… And why wasn’t this 96% the lead-in for the media?

As I said, there is a lot more in here too, and despite its flaws, this is an interesting survey which has much to it than meets the eye if you just read the media reports.