George Orwell’s grim 1984 story admonition that "Big Brother is Watching You" has since gained a rapidly growing number of progeny. That same year he wrote it — in 1949 — an American company released the first commercially-available closed-circuit television (CCTV) system.
The market for these devices literally exploded a half-century later following September 2001 terror attacks which shook the national psyche. By last year, New York City had ramped up installations to roughly 20,000 officially-run cameras in Manhattan alone.
Chicago meanwhile had installed an estimated 32,000 CCTVs to help combat the inner city murder epidemic.
Artificial intelligence-enabled facial recognition technologies interconnected with metadata processing algorithms converted those ubiquitous CCTVs within an "Internet-of-Things" (IoT) of frighteningly invasive scope and scale.
We citizens who are constantly being observed and recorded are simply perceived as data points — information generators in various representative nodes in a system designed around the idea of data mining our ant farm-like patterns of behavior.
New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has installed monitors to scan motorists’ faces at bridges and tunnels connecting Manhattan to other boroughs.
Five seconds after a car enters the crossing, its driver’s face is processed and compared to a state database. Police on the other side are waiting to nab people for warrants, suspected felons, parole violators — and terrorist suspects.
But you don’t have to have any criminal record whatsoever to have your metadata perpetually available to uninvited voyeurs.
Contrary to 2014 congressional testimony presented by then-FBI Director James Comey, the agency does, in fact, maintain a massive database which includes photos and other information about ordinary citizens.
Records obtained that year in response to an Electronic Frontier Foundation Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit revealed that the agency’s "Next Generation Identification" (NGI) was designed to include multiple forms of combined biometric data which is shared with other federal agencies along with approximately 18,000 tribal, state, and local agencies across the United States.
This immense personal NGI record database includes fingerprints, palm prints, iris scans, and facial recognition data which is linked to such personal and biographic data as name, home address, an ID number, immigration status, age, race, etc.
At least in the past, NGI facial recognition data had a very mediocre rate of accuracy for which the FBI has disclaimed their use for "positive identification" to avoid legal issues.
The nonpartisan independent watchdog "Project On Government Oversight" (POGO) issued a recent report highlighting that these current technologies have huge false positive rates, and thus would draw attention to innocent citizens, even if they boost the "efficiency" of police surveillance.
NGI and other enormously diverse sources of private data collection and sharing are expansive and expanding.
Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other companies collect and archive massive databases including tagged photos which they can sell to businesses like the stores you walk into and government agencies you interact with.
In 2013, Facebook alone reportedly had one quarter of a trillion user photos in its database.
Pervasive citizen surveillance is just as much about data analysis as it is about data collection.
Facebook reportedly has an algorithm that works by recognizing your image hair style, body shape, and body language.
Google’s algorithm can accurately match child and adult photos of the same person.
There is also a large, but invisible, industry that applies cameras mounted on cars and tow trucks to identify and track vehicles that are scheduled for repossession.
These companies routinely share that data with police to provide surveillance information on citizens that they can’t be collected legally.
So, how much do we — and should we — really care about trading away our personal privacy for promised security and convenience?
A 2018 Brookings poll found that while 50 percent of Americans believed there should be limits on the use of facial recognition by law enforcement, 26 percent did not, and 24 percent were unsure.
Forty-nine percent believed that the government should not compile a database of peoples’ faces, 22 percent thought it should, and 29 percent weren’t certain.
Inescapably, as world experience teaches, personal privacy becomes recognized as being a far more urgent priority after it is surrendered.
Although ever-advancing facial recognition and endlessly interconnected surveillance technologies can’t be un-invented, it is imperative that we reassert Fourth Amendment protections from "unreasonable searches and seizures."
These protections were wisely enacted to check government control over our lives and liberties by limiting the amount of information it knows about us.
In my recent book "Reinventing Ourselves: How Technology is Rapidly and Radically Transforming Humanity," I refer to the big tradeoff between more security and convenience in exchange for precious privacy as a "boiling frog" analogy.
Like that witless critter in a shallow pan of water placed over a flame, we can’t afford to complacently adjust to the gradual temperature change until it’s too late to jump out.
Larry Bell is an endowed professor of space architecture at the University of Houston where he founded the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture (SICSA) and the graduate program in space architecture. He is the author of several books, including "Reinventing Ourselves: How Technology is Rapidly and Radically Transforming Humanity" (2019), "Thinking Whole: Rejecting Half-Witted Left & Right Brain Limitations" (2018), "Reflections on Oceans and Puddles: One Hundred Reasons to be Enthusiastic, Grateful and Hopeful” (2017), "Cosmic Musings: Contemplating Life Beyond Self" (2016), and "Scared Witless: Prophets and Profits of Climate Doom" (2015). He is currently working on a new book with Buzz Aldrin, "Beyond Footprints and Flagpoles." To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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