Imagine the perfect society. You know, the type where everyone is happy, everyone has a job, there is no crime, and the government watches every move you make. Sound a little bit “Orwellian?” Good, because it is. Sound far-fetched? Well it is a lot closer to reality then you think. I came across an article today that highlighted recent implementations by the local government in Medina, Washington, which is located between Seattle and Bellevue.
Medina recently installed cameras all throughout the city to monitor all traffic that is coming and going. Thanks to recent advancements in “automatic license plate recognition” software, every vehicle’s license plate is captured and scanned through a database. If any red flags come up such as an outstanding warrant, reported stolen vehicle, or homicide or robbery suspect, the data is automatically forwarded to police. Medina police chief, Jeffery Chen, says this enables the department to “leap into action” against possible perpetrators and keep crime out of the city. Chen says that cameras provide information to “stay ahead of criminals.”
On the surface, lower crime should be welcome in any community. The kicker, however, is that the Medina system keeps a record of all license plates for 60 days even if nothing negative turns up from the license plate check. Advocates of the program suggest that it is a way to crack down on crime in the city. Opponents, however, have pointed out that this type of surveillance and data mining walks a fine line between protection and invasion of privacy. Doug Honig from the ACLU in Washington stated, “By actions like this, we’re moving closer and closer to a surveillance society.”
The use of video surveillance certainly isn’t a new concept, but recent advancements in technology allow simple video cameras to be turned into 24 hour data mining resources. I did a cursory search of the use of video surveillance and found some interesting results. Most people are aware of the controversial wire tapping and email monitoring that took place after the September 11th attacks. What most people probably are not aware of is the increasing levels of funding to state and local governments designed to implement 24 hour surveillance programs. In 2005, former President Bush made over $2 billion dollars available to state and local governments for homeland security needs. Since then, cities such as Chicago, New Orleans, and Baltimore have implemented systems that monitor video data 24 hours a day using advanced analytics.
Video analytics is a rising industry that uses advanced algorithms to analyze video data to look for “suspicious” activity. Companies such as SiteLogix, Cernium, and Vidient offer advanced video analytics software to state and local governments as well as companies in the private sector. Demonstrations of the products are available on their websites and on YouTube. What is even more disturbing than the capabilities of the software is that there are no universal regulations that restrict how much data is gathered or for how long it is kept. Too make matters worse, the Department of Homeland Security has created a series of “fusion centers” across the country to share data with state and local governments with collaboration from the federal government, military, other state and local governments, law enforcement, and private security firms. A detailed summary of these fusion centers can be read on the ACLU website. Think you can catch a quick break from government monitoring on a quick bathroom break? Take a look at the warning from the Department of Homeland Security at the Hobby airport in Houston.
We live in an age where the threat of terrorism is high and crime rates are slowly rising due to higher unemployment and other difficulties in the economy. The use of technology to reduce these threats shows a lot of promise, but it also raises several red flags about protecting the privacy of American citizens. I know I am certainly not excited about the government watching my every move. Perhaps it’s time to pull out my Enemy of the State DVD and start taking notes from Gene Hackman and Will Smith. Maybe you should, too, because if “he” isn’t already there, keep on the lookout. “Big Brother” will be coming to a city near you.
Title image: Naomi Austin
Dave Baldwin is a businessman, musician, and divorced father of two boys. They live together in El Paso, TX.