GPS tracking goes mainstream

There is increasing evidence that US police forces are now using GPS tracking devices regularly and with impunity. Following court rulings at different levels which have left the legal situation unclear with only the Supreme Court left (this coming week), police forces across the country have been slapping GPS trackers on thousands of private vehicles, without warrants, and until recently, without the knowledge of those being tracked.

However, Wired‘s Threat Level blog has been reporting on the growing numbers of cases of Americans who have discovered GPS trackers on their cars, and in one particularly bizarre case, a device that was replaced by undercover officers while the Wired reporters were in the vicinity, having just removed and photographed the original device!

There are many pictures and manufacturers’ detail on Threat Level. Here are a couple…

GPS tracker in place:

GPS tracker disassembled showing souped-up longlife battery, including manufacturer’s details:

One of the more perplexing things about the use of these devices is what recourse the US citizen has when they discover them. If they are placed ‘legally’, do you have the right to remove or indeed to disassemble them? What would be done if they are removed? The experience of Wired would suggest that the device would be replaced, but how many times could this go on? At what point would the state take some kind of legal action to attempt to prevent the removal of a device? In the case of location tracking devices that are known about but unable to be legally removed, surely you have a situation that becomes equivalent not to simple (if it is even simple) unwarranted surveillance, but to electronic tagging.

Facebook owns patent on location-based social networking

Via Boingboing: Facebook has been awarded a ‘broad’ US patent on location-based social networking services. This seems curious when Foursquare, Gowalla, Google Latitude and many others were doing this long before Facebook, but it seems that Facebook applied for this patent back in 2007, so even though they weren’t doing it before others, in the way the patent system works, they can claim they were thinking about doing it before others.

Facebook seems to be moving strongly to consolidate its hold on social networking and it clearly sees its location-based service, Places, and such like as being the guarantee of its future success. In short, it seems intent on creating a ‘brandscape’ which recombines the virtual and the material producing a seamless data-stream on the lives of its users for it to exploit.

Drone Britain

Despite the supposed anti-surveillance tendencies of the new coalition government in Britain, one kind of surveillance would seem to be expanding, as it is almost everywhere in the world: that of surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Micro-unmanned Aerial Vehicles (MAVs) or flying drone cameras. There are so many previous stories on this blog about drones you’d be better off searching than me providing links here!

The Guardian reported on Friday that a growing number of different agencies are either ordering drones or have plans to do so, including he Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), four police forces (Merseyside, Essex, Staffordshire and the British Transport Police), the Environment Agency, and even some Fire Services (West Midlands and South Wales). This follows the story in January that there was what seemed to be an evolving secret national strategy for drones.

So far, their use has been limited not by ethical concerns but by the requirements of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) which insists that they must be “licensed when flown within 50 metres of a person, property or structure.” This remains its position, but it will be interesting to see how stringent are the licensing requirements as drones increase in number and whether the expansion in UAV use is in any way affected by the government’s stated policy aim to bring CCTV under stricter regulation.

(thanks to Charles Raab for this)

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…)

The city where the cameras never sleep… New York, New York

The Gothamist blog has a brief report on the massive upgrading and expansion of the video surveillance system in the New York public transit system. Like Chicago, which I’ve mentioned several times here, the cameras in New York are really just collection devices to feed an evolving suite of video analytic software, that can track suspects or vehicles in real-time or search through old footage to find multiple occurences of particular distinctive objects or people.

The other notable thing is that the new camera system is just completely overlaying the old – in other words there is no attempt to connect the older cameras which are not compatible and have far poorer image quality. As cameras and software gets cheaper, this option looks like being the one many urban authorities will pursue, so cities like London, which pioneered widespread video surveillance, but which, with their disconnected mosaic of incompatible systems, have started to look increasingly ineffective and out-of-date, could deal with this not by expensive and unreliable fixes but simply by sticking in an entirely new integrated algorithmic system on top of or alongside the old ones. Technological fallibility and incompatibility can no longer be relied on as protections for the privacy rights of citizens in public spaces.