Government Snooping Goes Hi-Tech

Does data-mining point to a dystopian future?


As with most futuristic movies, the plot from Minority Report seemed a bit far-fetched. Police psychics dispatched officers to arrest perpetrators of crimes before they actually took place. Eleven years after its release, though, the movie seems remarkably prescient.

"(Fresno Police Chief) Jerry Dyer is betting he soon will know what criminals will do before they decide to break the law," reported the Fresno Bee in an August news story detailing that city's new command center. It uses supercomputers to build profiles so, as the chief said, "you can logically predict where crimes are likely to occur the next day."

Fresno gathers data from video-cameras, stationed throughout the city, and other sources. This so-called "Big Data" approach to policing has rapidly expanded nationwide after video footage helped pinpoint the Boston Marathon bombers.

Oakland now is using anti-terrorism grants — meant to beef up security at its port — to build an innocuously named Domain Access Center. It "will collect and analyze reams of surveillance data from around town — from gunshot-detection sensors in the barrios of East Oakland to license plate readers mounted on police cars patrolling the city's upscale hills," according to the New York Times.

"Pervasive warrantless surveillance reflects the fact that domestic law enforcement agencies have adapted the 'counter-insurgency' model employed by the military, the CIA, and the NSA overseas," said civil-libertarian author William Norman Grigg, who alerted me to Fresno's movie-like "predictive policing" model.

These technologies advance incrementally. Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 806, which sanctions a Department of Motor Vehicles pilot program to test electronic license plates — something critics fear eventually will allow government to track drivers' whereabouts. The program was backed by Smart Plate Mobile, which has a patent on a digital plate. These technologies often combine the efficiency of the private sector with the power of government agencies, which is another way such approaches differ from traditional policing efforts.

Oakland and Fresno officials say high crime rates justify these measures. But the San Diego Police Department says the city "is fortunate to have such a low crime rate; however we are constantly looking for new methods to reduce crime even further." One such method is Operation Secure San Diego, which lets police monitor video-streams from a private business.

"This program is just one of many in a rapidly increasing infrastructure that needs policy and oversight controls that do not now exist," said Kevin Keenan, with the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. He's more concerned about the misuse of license-plate readers. And he worries about the lack of controls on SANDAG's envelope-pushing facial-recognition program, which lets police scan people's faces and compare them with databases.

The ACLU calls for independent oversight and controls. Agencies claim they don't misuse the technologies — but Keenan points to examples of abuse (i.e., a federal report showed misuse of information obtained at government "fusion centers"). And then there's mission creep. License-plate readers were sold to the public as a means to identify stolen cars, he added, but now agencies are mining the data to investigate suspects. The only real limits are ones imposed by the agencies themselves.

Problems with open-ended data-trolling are legion. We know, historically, that authorities do indeed misuse information. Any assurances of "proper procedures" often aren't worth very much, based on the continuing revelations about the National Security Agency programs.

"You don't know how your movements are being tracked during the day," said Jennifer Lynch, an attorney for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, pointing to vast information sharing among agencies. As a result, Americans become more fearful and less willing to, say, express unpopular political positions or do anything outside the mainstream.

In The Matrix, Neo is offered a blue or red pill. Taking the former lets him continue in a fantasy world, but the latter will open his eyes to grim reality. Until the public swallows the truth about the depth of the budding surveillance infrastructure, our society could become fodder for future dystopian movies.