Public Networks and Privacy

I’ve been investigating smart city applications and one of the features that many smart network vendors are touting is expanded public safety networks that can provide cameras and other monitoring devices for police, making it easier to monitor neighborhoods and solve crimes. This seems like something most police departments have on their wish list, because cameras are 24/7 and can see things that people are never likely to witness.

The question I ask today is if this what America wants? There are a few examples of cities with ubiquitous video surveillance like London, but is that kind of surveillance going to work in the US?

I think we’ve gotten our first clue from Seattle. The City installed a WiFi mesh network using Aruba wireless equipment in 2013 with a $3.6 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security. The initial vision for the network was that it would be a valuable tool to provide security in the major port in Seattle as well as provide communications for first responders during emergencies. At the time of installation the city intended to also make the surveillance capabilities available to numerous departments within the City, not just to the police.

But when the antennas, like the one shown with this blog, went up in downtown Seattle in 2013, a number of groups began questioning the city about their surveillance policies and the proposed use of these devices. Various groups including the ACLU voiced concerns that the network would be able to track cellphones, laptops and other devices that have MAC addresses. This could allow the City to gather information on anybody moving in downtown or the Port and might allow the City to do things like identify and track protesters, monitor who enters and leaves downtown buildings, track the movement of homeless people who have cellphones, etc.

Privacy groups and the ACLU complained to the City that the network effectively was a suspicionless surveillance system that monitors the general population and is a major violation of various constitutional rights. The instant and loud protests about the network caught City officials by surprise and by the end of 2013 they deactivated the network until they developed a surveillance policy. The city never denied that the system could monitor the kinds of things that citizens were wary of. That surveillance policy never materialized, and the City recently hired a vendor to dismantle the network and salvage any usable parts for use elsewhere in the City.

I can think of other public outcries that have led to discontinuance of public monitoring systems, particularly speed camera networks that catch and ticket speeders. Numerous communities tried that idea and scrapped it after massive citizen outrage. New York City installed a downtown WiFi network a few years ago that was to include security cameras and other monitoring devices. From what I read they’ve never yet activated the security features, probably for similar reasons. A web search shows that other cities like Chicago have implemented a network similar to Seattle’s and have not gotten the negative public reaction.

The Seattle debacle leads to the question of what is reasonable surveillance. The developers of smart city solutions today are promoting the same kinds of features contained in the Seattle network, plus new ones. Technology has advanced since 2013 and newer systems are promising to include the first generation of facial recognition software and also the ability to identify people by their walking gait. These new monitoring devices won’t just track people with cellphones and can identify and track everybody.

I think there is probably a disconnect between what smart city vendors are developing and what the public wants out of their city government. I would think that most citizens are in favor of smart city solutions like smart traffic systems that would eliminate driving backups, such as changing the timing of lights to get people through town as efficiently as possible.

But I wonder how many people really want their City to identify and track them every time they go within reach of one of City monitors. The information gathered by such monitors can be incredibly personal. It identifies where somebody is including a time stamp. The worry is not just that a City might misuse such personal information, but IT security guys I’ve talked to believe that many Municipal IT networks are susceptible to hacking.

In the vendors defense they are promoting features that already function well. Surveillance cameras and other associated monitors are tried and true technologies that work. Some of the newer features like facial recognition are cutting edge, but surveillance  systems installed today can likely be upgraded with software changes as the technology gets better.

I know I would be uncomfortable if my city installed this kind of surveillance system. I don’t go downtown except go to restaurants or bars, but what I do is private and is not the city’s business. Unfortunately, I suspect that city officials all over the country will get enamored by the claims from smart city vendors and will be tempted to install these kinds of systems. I just hope that there is enough public discussion of city plans so that the public understands what their city is planning. I’m sure there are cities where the public will support this technology, but plenty of others where citizens will hate the idea. Just because we have the technical capabilities to monitor everybody doesn’t mean we ought to.

2 thoughts on “Public Networks and Privacy

  1. “Smart cities” my eye! I’ve been advocating for something as simple as a red light camera at 6th and Columbine in Denver, CO for some years now. Its the nexus for pedestrian traffic to Bromwell Elementary School and Good Shepherd Catholic School and 5% of Denver’s 2015 fatal traffic accidents occurred within 1 block of this location. I was among the first on the scene of Labor Day 2015’s fatal motorycle accident at that intesection. The minutes went by and Oscar did not repsond to CPR…
    Despite being a school crossing with $300 fines, a casual observer would see dozens of red light runners in one hour at peak hours. Pushback I got from successive city council members:
    1. Cameras “cost too much” at $100,000 each (at $300 per violator/instance, could be paid back in one month!)
    2. City of 700,000 has all of 4 red light cameras city wide and city offiicals don’t have the resources to manage the system. Somehow, surrounding suburbs (Douglas and Jefferson counties) with much more libertarian council members don’t have a problem placing cameras at most major intersections.
    3. Currently, the ONLY way to catch/penalize a red light runner is for a cop to do the ticketing in person, a fine 1970’s solution to a street system plotted in the 1890’s handling 2018 200 MPH-capable cars and motorcycles. Recent scandals involving Denver PD under reporting or not reporting crime stats diminishes my confidence in “public safety” officialdom. Why not have a robot nailing red light runners at the school crossing?

    What I sense to be at the core of the city’s refusal to provide what I consider to be common sense public safety measures is a worry that ACLU will sue them on behalf of what I call “Libertarians fom Limon”, a one stop light town 1 hour east of Denver. Ergo, I’m debating the renewal of my ACLU membership.

    Your right to privacy ends at my kid’s safety.

  2. Pingback: Some Favorite Telecom Resources – Geoff Wilbur's Telecom & Tech Blog

Leave a Reply