Big Brother is Watching
By John D. Turner
6 August 2001

Have you had the feeling lately that someone is watching you? You may have good reason. Someone probably is.

It is increasingly difficult in today's society to pass unnoticed. Cameras watch you at the bank and the corner ice house, in case of robbery. Cameras watch you when you pump your gas, in case you drive off without paying. Cameras watch as you drive along the freeway, to help control traffic flow and direct emergency vehicles to the scene of accidents. Cameras watch you in the stores, to guard against shoplifting. You would probably be surprised to discover how much of what you do every day is captured by cameras located in the various places you frequent.

Most of this happens without you noticing. We are vaguely aware of it happening, but with the pressing concerns of our daily life to worry about, these sorts of privacy issues take a back seat. If we do happen to think about it we usually dismiss it as something over which we have no control.

Lately there have been a number of items in the news that suggest that perhaps we should be taking a more active interest in our privacy; others certainly are.

Have you ever rented a car? Have you ever driven over the speed limit in a rented vehicle? Mr James Turner (no relation), a resident of New Haven, Connecticut did both. Last October he rented a car from Acme Rent-A-Car, located in New Haven. Later, when he received his bill, there were charges for an additional $450. When he called Acme to question the charges, he was informed that the contract he signed stated that there was a $150 fee assessed every time the renter drove in excess of the posted speed limit. Mr Turner had, apparently, exceeded the speed limit three times during the time he rented the vehicle, and thus was liable for the extra $450 in fees.

How did Acme know he had exceeded the speed limit? All of Acme's cars are equipped with a global positioning system (GPS). Many rental car companies have such receivers in their cars, allowing them to track the vehicles. This acts as a deterrent to theft, and to enable recovery of the vehicle in the event that it is stolen. It also means that any time you rent a vehicle, your whereabouts are known.

Acme's system goes one step further. In addition to tracking your whereabouts, it also monitors your speed. If you exceed the speed limit for longer than two minutes, it informs Acme, who then charges your account $150 for the infraction. So far, Acme has "fined" 26 of its customers for such behavior.

Who appointed Acme as a minion of the law? Well, no one. Acme defends their position as charging their customers for "dangerous conduct" while renting their equipment. No report is made to the appropriate law enforcement agency. Nor do they point out the clause in their lease agreement, or inform the customer as to how that particular clause would be enforced. Of course not. If they did, their customers would go elsewhere. At least until the other rental companies start using their installed GPS systems to do the same thing. After all, it appears there's money to be made here. And since speeding is illegal anyway, who's to complain?

With GPS technology becoming more and more affordable, how long will it be before the Federal government makes it mandatory equipment in all new automobiles sold, much as they have done with seatbelts and air bags? The rationale, of course would be safety. Missing persons and accidents could be located quickly. Lives could be saved. Stolen cars could be recovered. And of course, if a rental company can use the GPS system to tell if you are speeding or not, so can the local law enforcement agencies. No more need for traffic cops or speed cameras. Exceed the limit and your ticket is mailed directly to your home, no fuss, no muss. Or perhaps it is just debited directly from your checking account. After all, there is no need for a trial, since you are obviously guilty.

But what if you weren't driving? How would the system know who was behind the wheel? Does it really matter? How does Acme know you were actually driving when the car exceeded the limit. They don't, of course. However, since you rented it, you are legally responsible. The law enforcement community could do something similar, modeled on the drug forfeiture laws. You weren't necessarily speeding, but your car certainly was. So we charge your car with the crime of exceeding the speed limit. We can't determine if it was actually you at the wheel, so we won't assess you points against your license, however since you, as owner, are responsible for the conduct of your car, we will assess you the fine. Think this can't happen? Think again. Someone will market the system, and cash-strapped police departments, always on the look out for ways to both do their jobs and raise cash, will jump at the chance.

Automated systems already exist, in far greater numbers than one might suspect. In Washington D.C., six cameras are already in place to ticket speeders. This follows on the heels of an earlier success with cameras at intersections to catch people who run red lights. Such systems are becoming more and more popular, since they never sleep, are never distracted, and are proven revenue generators. Estimates are that the speeding cameras will generate an additional 80,000 speeding tickets each month once it becomes fully operational on 1 Aug 2001. Tests of the units at 125 sites resulted in an average of 144 speeders per hour being ticketed. There were only 10,000 speeding tickets issued by the District in all of last year.

Red light enforcement cameras in particular are big money makers. The Districtís cameras are maintained via a contract with Lockheed Martin IMS, which designed and operates the systems, and shares in the "take". Lockheed expects to net over $44 million dollars just on the red light cameras alone between 1999 and 2004; the districtís cut is expected to be more than $117 million during the same period. So far, the cameras have resulted in over 230,000 paid red-light violations since the cameras were installed, netting the District more than $12 million.

In Montgomery County, Maryland such cameras are operated and maintained by Electronic Data Systems, Inc. Pictures taken by the system are reviewed and citations are signed off by the Montgomery County Police Department. EDS sends the violation notice directly to the vehicle's owner. Violators are fined $75.00. The photo violation carries no points, and insurance companies cannot consider the ticket for insurance rates. Such a deal! It's better to get caught by the camera than by a physical policeman! The Police department gets its money, EDS gets part of the take, and the citizen gets caught and penalized for committing the crime, but doesn't have to worry about points or insurance problems, so they are happy. Everyone "wins".

Of course, the potential for abuse is high as well. Simply decrease the amount of time the light stays yellow, and you increase the amount of revenue generated by the cameras. Unfortunately, this also leads to an increase in rear-end collisions at stop lights, as motorists try to avoid the fine. Remember, the avowed purpose of putting the cameras there in the first place was to cut down on the incidence of collisions by drivers ignoring the stop light.. This has triggered a Congressional investigation by Congressman Dick Armey (R-Texas) into whether yellow light duration has been deliberately cut in order to maximize "profits" at intersections equipped with red light enforcement cameras, and if some sort of federal standards need to be established as a result.

Other, more ominous surveillance vehicles are in the works. Tampa, Florida recently installed a set of 36 high-tech security cameras to "patrol" its nightlife district. The cameras do more than just send pictures back to a monitoring site for visual surveillance. They directly feed into a software program that matches each face scanned against a database of mug shots of people with outstanding arrest warrants, using "face-mapping" technology. Tampa is the first American city to install such a system along public streets. It is not to be the last. Such a system is also under consideration in Palm Springs, Virginia Beach, and in Colorado, to name a few locations. Colorado, is also considering a requirement to have your face "mapped" in order to obtain a driver's license, to facilitate scanning by such equipment. Face-recognition technology is considered a powerful tool to assist in maximizing public safety. It can be a powerful tool in the hands of a police state as well.

All in all, it appears that your privacy is a thing of the past. Many may well say, so what? All these systems are intended to catch law-breakers and make life safer for me. Why should I care?

Knowledge is power. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. Consider for a moment, how you would fight something of this sort in court. How do you face your accuser? Where is the presumption of innocence? And do you really want your every move to be traceable? How could a corrupt government (federal, state, or local) manipulate such a system for their benefit, and what could you as an average citizen do about it? And don't think it couldn't happen here. Anyone remember Billy Dale and the White House Travel Office?

High-level government conspiracies aren't the only problem. What about blackmail by unscrupulous lower-level functionaries with access to surveillance data. How about hackers or other unauthorized users (rival political parties perhaps?) getting their hands on such information. Is that you there, chatting with that known prostitute or drug dealer? Were you soliciting him or her, trying to make a deal, or just innocently asking directions? Who can tell from the tape? What do you suppose your spouse would think? Your boss? Your constituents?

We are putting together the pieces of a potential police state bigger, more obtrusive, and more efficient than anything ever seen before on the face of the planet. 1984 is here. Big Brother is watching. Ben Franklin once said that he who gives up a little freedom for the sake of security deserves neither. If we ensconce such a system, piece by piece, in the hopes of making ourselves a little safer, we may one day discover that safety to be an illusion. And that in order to obtain that illusion, we have voluntarily given up that which is most precious to us, that for which generations of our forefather's have fought, bled, and died -- our freedom.