October 09, 2009

How to Get Rich Using Surveillance (CCTV) Cameras for Crime and Other Fun!

Greetings. I take a bit of flak from time to time over my public support for Google's Street View system. It seems to be politically popular to rake Google over the coals with claims that Street View is some sort of horrendous privacy violation. This is nonsense of course.

Street View provides static, non-real time imagery, currently typically months or even years old, and Google will remove any specific problematic images through a clearly defined reporting mechanism.

I can't count the number of times that Street View has already saved my butt navigating around L.A. -- and I've lived in this city my entire life!

Whenever I get complaints about Street View, I try to remind people that in stark contrast to Street View's harmlessness, a real, serious risk is in the rapid and in most cases largely unregulated increase in real-time, closed circuit TV (CCTV) surveillance systems, both in the public and private sector.

It's bad enough that there are many documented cases of government officials using these systems inappropriately -- for voyeurism or worse. But a new trend seems to be giving access to these systems to the public at large, in a sort of "turn everyone into a spy" mentality that would have warmed Stalin's heart.

Up to now this trend has been fairly limited. But it appears ready for a giant leap "forward" -- and it should surprise nobody that this is starting in Great Britain, home to enough CCTV cameras to seemingly cover just about every orifice of everyone in the country on a 24/7 basis.

Enter the Internet Eyes project. The project claims it will fight crime, by providing human monitors for the many CCTV cameras that are not being viewed at any given time. They're starting in England, and want to spread worldwide.

But if I was assigned the task of inventing a scenario with the most potential for providing a voyeur's wonderland, increasing the risk of damage and death to innocent individuals, and for creating the foundation for vast increases in criminal activity -- this sort of project would be it.

Internet Eyes plans to let random members of the public gain access to vast numbers of CCTV cameras on a real-time basis as part of a game. Catch the most criminals in the act -- win cash prizes. You can read the sordid details at the link above -- they're too stomach churning for me to repeat here.

The potential for abuse of such a system is incredibly vast, especially when viewers combine and coordinate criminal efforts. The inherent ability to save and trade images will create a new voyeuristic playground of enormous scope. While the promoters of the system claim protections against false alarms, these will be trivially bypassed. Working together, viewers will quickly built a database for rapid and easy identification of individual cameras, destroying the promised "anonymity" of the system.

Combine real-time access to these cameras, a camera locational database, perhaps an underground centralized viewing aggregation site, and cellphone Internet access -- then the real fun can begin! A scattering of Webcams of the sort generally available today presents a minimal risk. But the immensely vast and dense CCTV networks of the sort that would involved in projects such as Internet Eyes are of a wholly different order, with orders of magnitude greater risks:

"I see which house he went into. He'll pay big to keep his wife from finding out!"

"She's alone now! OK baby, here I come!"

"Only the clerk is in the store! Shoot him, grab the money, and get out fast!"

And so on. You don't need a lot of imagination to come up with even more dire scenarios involving terrorism and similar horrors.

Outside of the basic problems inherent in the vast spread of unregulated CCTV systems, projects such a Internet Eyes are dangerous because they implicitly assume that since most viewers will likely be honest, the ability of evil players to leverage the environment is very limited.

But in fact, the same technologies that make these CCTV systems possible, combined with the ethically-neutral capabilities of the Internet for sharing, aggregating, and quickly analyzing information, will in this case provide asymmetric advantages to those parties who would use access to the CCTV network for criminal and other evil purposes.

The entire concept of unregulated public access to dense, real-time CCTV networks, especially in the manner contemplated by Internet Eyes and similar efforts, is in its current form nothing short of a nightmare.


Posted by Lauren at October 9, 2009 12:27 PM | Permalink
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