“Society is fundamentally changing and we aren’t having a conversation about it. We are entering the era of wholesale surveillance.”
A dome camera in Lyon, France. Intelligent surveillance networks are commonplace in European cities. Now, many American municipalities are building similar systems.
By James Vlahos
In the era of computer-controlled surveillance, your every move could be captured by cameras, whether you’re shopping in the grocery store or driving on the freeway. Proponents say it will keep us safe, but at what cost?
The ferry arrived, the gangway went down and 7-year-old Emma Powell rushed toward the Statue of Liberty. She climbed onto the grass around the star-shaped foundation. She put on a green foam crown with seven protruding rays. Turning so that her body was oriented just like Lady Liberty’s, Emma extended her right arm skyward with an imaginary torch. I snapped a picture. Then I took my niece’s hand, and we went off to buy some pretzels.
Other people were taking pictures, too, and not just the other tourists—Liberty Island, name notwithstanding, is one of the most heavily surveilled places in America. Dozens of cameras record hundreds of hours of video daily, a volume that strains the monitoring capability of guards. The National Park Service has enlisted extra help, and as Emma and I strolled around, we weren’t just being watched by people. We were being watched by machines.
Liberty Island’s video cameras all feed into a computer system. The park doesn’t disclose details, but fully equipped, the system is capable of running software that analyzes the imagery and automatically alerts human overseers to any suspicious events. The software can spot when somebody abandons a bag or backpack. It has the ability to discern between ferryboats, which are allowed to approach the island, and private vessels, which are not. And it can count bodies, detecting if somebody is trying to stay on the island after closing, or assessing when people are grouped too tightly together, which might indicate a fight or gang activity. “A camera with artificial intelligence can be there 24/7, doesn’t need a bathroom break, doesn’t need a lunch break and doesn’t go on vacation,” says Ian Ehrenberg, former vice president of Nice Systems, the program’s developer.
Most Americans would probably welcome such technology at what clearly is a marquee terrorist target. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in July 2007 found that 71 percent of Americans favor increased video surveillance. What people may not realize, however, is that advanced monitoring systems such as the one at the Statue of Liberty are proliferating around the country. High-profile national security efforts make the news—wiretapping phone conversations, Internet monitoring—but state-of-the-art surveillance is increasingly being used in more every-day settings. By local police and businesses. In banks, schools and stores. There are an estimated 30 million surveillance cameras now deployed in the United States shooting 4 billion hours of footage a week. Americans are being watched, all of us, almost everywhere.
We have arrived at a unique moment in the history of surveillance. The price of both megapixels and gigabytes has plummeted, making it possible to collect a previously unimaginable quantity and quality of data. Advances in processing power and software, meanwhile, are beginning to allow computers to surmount the greatest limitation of traditional surveillance—the ability of eyeballs to effectively observe the activity on dozens of video screens simultaneously. Computers can’t do all the work by themselves, but they can expand the capabilities of humans exponentially.
Security expert Bruce Schneier says that it is naive to think that we can stop these technological advances, especially as they become more affordable and are hard-wired into everyday businesses. (I know of a local pizzeria that warns customers with a posted sign: “Stop stealing the spice shakers! We know who you are, we have 24-hour surveillance!”) But it is also reckless to let the advances proceed without a discussion of safeguards against privacy abuses. “Society is fundamentally changing and we aren’t having a conversation about it,” Schneier says. “We are entering the era of wholesale surveillance.”