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SurveillanceThe real costs of cheap surveillance

By Jonathan Weinberg

Published 26 July 2017

Surveillance used to be expensive. Even just a few years ago, tailing a person’s movements around the clock required rotating shifts of personnel devoted full-time to the task. Not any more, though. Governments can track the movements of massive numbers of people by positioning cameras to read license plates, or by setting up facial recognition systems. Private companies’ tracking of our lives has also become easy and cheap too. Advertising network systems let data brokers track nearly every page you visit on the web, and associate it with an individual profile. It is worth thinking about all of this more deeply. U.S. firms – unless they’re managed or regulated in socially beneficial ways – have both the incentive and the opportunity to use information about us in undesirable ways. We need to talk about the government’s enacting rules constraining that activity. After all, leaving those decisions to the people who make money selling our data is unlikely to result in our getting the rules we want.

Surveillance used to be expensive. Even just a few years ago, tailing a person’s movements around the clock required rotating shifts of personnel devoted full-time to the task. Not any more, though.

Governments can track the movements of massive numbers of people by positioning cameras to read license plates, or by setting up facial recognition systems. Those systems need few people to operate them, automating the collection of information about people’s lives and adding that data to searchable databases. Surveillance has become cheap.

I study the law of identification and privacy, so I pay attention to that trend, and it’s worrying. The data maintained in our individual profiles can be used in making decisions about credit, employment, government benefits and more. What governments and companies think they know about us – whether or not it’s accurate – has real power over our actual lives.

Old-fashioned surveillance
Back in the day, the high cost of surveillance made it not a big deal when the Supreme Court ruled that government agents don’t need a warrant to follow a person in public, to sift through her trash or to fly over her property and observe it from the air.

The effort needed to collect that sort of data meant that governments would engage in surveillance only rarely, and only for compelling reasons. For most Americans, little about their everyday comings and goings, likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams was tabulated and collected in any central source. But that’s now changed.

Because information collection is now so easy and storage is cheap, it makes sense for government to collect much more information. As a result, after 9/11, rather than the U.S. government first trying to figure out who the bad guys might be and then collecting records of who they spoke to on the phone, federal officials simply compiled a database of who every person in the U.S. was speaking to on the phone, updated in real time.

Online tracking
Private companies’ tracking of our lives has also become easy and cheap too. Advertising network systems let data brokers track nearly every page you visit on the web, and associate it with an individual profile. Facebook can follow much of its users’ web browsing, even if they’re not logged in.