Smart devices and internet-connected home security cameras are an organically and voluntarily built infrastructure for mass dystopian surveillance. This is so widely acknowledged that it has tipped into joke territory. "Hey wiretap," a woman asks an Amazon smart speaker in one meme, "do you have a recipe for pancakes?"
It's funny because it's true. No, seriously: It's true. Law enforcement agencies are just as aware of the surveillance potential here as the rest of us, and they will take advantage of that potential if we do not pass laws to stop them.
A new program in Jackson, Mississippi, demonstrates the imminence of the risk. Police there have a shiny new "real-time command center" from which to surveil the local citizenry. What they don't have is funding to purchase the many thousands of surveillance cameras they'd need for city-wide coverage—there are a few, bought with a federal grant, but most of municipal cameras are too old to livestream their feeds.
So the Jackson police are working with Fusus, a company whose surveillance cameras can be bought by private parties and then linked to the city network. A "trial program with Fusus was attractive to Jackson officials because it helps save money by passing the cost of surveillance onto businesses and homeowners who purchase devices from the company," NBC reports. The command center can also pull in livestreams from other home security tech not made by Fusus ("just about any kind of camera," NBC says), like the doorbell cameras that have become a popular means of deterring and identifying porch pirates.
The goal is a budget version of the heavy CCTV coverage already in place in London and several cities in China but so far unreplicated even in America's most-surveilled places. "We'll be able to get a location, draw a circle around it, and pull up every camera within a certain radius to see if someone runs out of a building," Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said in October. "We can follow and trace them."
The Jackson program is not unique. About two dozen police departments around the country are already working with Fusus, though some, such as the Minneapolis police, say they're doing a more limited version of the program that won't include livestreams from doorbell cameras because of privacy concerns. (Whether those scruples will endure remains to be seen. Fusus may well upsell its clients on additional features as time goes on, doorbell livestreams included.)
Meanwhile, many law enforcement organizations are availing themselves of "Neighbors by Ring," which is offered to public safety agencies (a category that also includes fire departments) as a way to retroactively request doorbell camera footage from Ring users in an area where a crime is believed to have been committed. Neighbors is a much more guarded system than the Fusus approach looks to be; it requires police to make discrete requests instead of simply getting all the footage, all the time, instantly. It also shields users' identities from police unless they choose to volunteer a video, and users are able to opt out of law enforcement requests entirely (though officers could still canvas their neighborhood to ask in person).
Hundreds of other U.S. police departments have their own camera registries through various vendors. Like Neighbors by Ring, and unlike the Fusus system, they typically function to speed the process by which police can request access to specific, recorded footage while investigating a specific allegation. It's not impossible to imagine that type of registry leading to civil liberties abuses, but the Fusus livestream arrangement is categorically different.
The Jackson program has voluntary participation, and participants must opt in. This is miles better than any variant in which people might have their video feeds monitored without knowing it or might struggle to complete an opt-out process. Yet even if opt-in never turns into opt-out or voluntary never becomes mandatory—developments which are neither technologically nor politically inconceivable—it's not difficult to see worrisome scenarios here.
"If someone says, 'We have someone breaking into our home,' and they have a doorcam, and they give us permission and have signed an agreement, we can go into their camera and actually see the person breaking in," said Deputy Police Chief Vincent Ogburn of Ocoee, Florida, where the police department is also doing a trial with Fusus. "We can have all the information we need once we get there."
This sort of instant, advance preview of ground conditions is obviously appealing for officers heading out on an urgent call. From that reality, it's a short jump to a department with limited resources deciding to prioritize calls where camera access has been granted because they believe these are situations which will be easier to resolve. And that policy—so pragmatic, so reasonable—makes it another very small jump to saying residents should install cameras and give police access if they want to be certain they'll get police service.
Jackson officials are already encouraging residents to announce their participation in the livestream program as a means of crime deterrence. Will they eventually decide nonparticipants are functionally inviting crime? If you don't opt in, do you have something to hide? What could possibly be incriminating on your doorbell camera feed? Who's coming to your house whom you don't want us to see?
So far, Fusus doesn't integrate facial recognition. That's good news, given the many problems with the technology, especially for people who are not older white men. (Jackson is predominantly black.) But it does integrate other artificial intelligence analyses, the NBC report notes, "including software that tracks people by their clothing, behavior, and car." These are all identifiers with at least as much risk of confusion as a face.
Surveillance on this scale and in this style also offers more mundane opportunities for civil liberties abuses. "If you put any neighborhood under a microscope, you're going to find illegal things to arrest people for," said Matthew Guariglia of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "If the camera on your neighbor's porch is pointing at your front door, will they see your 19-year-old son drinking a beer on your porch? Will it see your neighbor driving home with no license plate?"
Will it invite official scrutiny and perhaps devastating consequences for all sorts of small, harmless, and maybe even unwitting violations of our far too many laws? The answer is obviously yes.