(CBS SF) — You don’t have to read far into the dystopian works of George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World before drawing up some similarities between fiction and real-world governments.
As thrilling as it is to entertain the idea of omnipresent surveillance in books, the rapid proliferation of technology means it’ll be more difficult to ensure there’s adequate time for public input, transparency and accountability around these new tools.
The American Civil Liberties Union of California released a step-by-step guide last week to help people ask questions about the use of surveillance in their communities, and whether it’s worth the cost, both in dollars and in individual rights.
Whether you call it public safety or an invasion of privacy, here are 11 ways the government is keeping tabs on you and your neighbors:
1. License Plate Scanners
A rapidly growing network of police or government-run cameras is capturing, storing and sharing data on license plates, making it possible to stitch together people’s movements whether they are stuck in a commute, going on vacation or are up to no good. For example, the cities of Piedmont, Fremont and Belvedere recently voted to allow surveillance cameras to record the license plates of all cars that drive into town. Meanwhile, drivers on Bay Area bridges are paying tolls either by the FasTrak system which records your license and personal information or by sending a bill to the registered address of the license plate captured by cameras as a vehicle goes through the toll plaza.
2. Body Cameras
Nationwide, hundreds of police departments have equipped officers with tiny body cameras to record anything from a traffic stop to a hot vehicle pursuit to an unfolding violent crime. Whether attached to shirt lapels or small headsets, the cameras are intended to provide more transparency and security to officers on the street and to reduce the number of misconduct complaints and potential lawsuits. But the issue lies in how long the video footage is stored for, and whether the officers can choose when to turn the cameras off.
U.S. law enforcement is greatly expanding its use of domestic drones for surveillance. The new technology has many beneficial uses – including in search and rescue missions, for scientific research and mapping. But deployed without proper regulation, drones equipped with facial recognition software, infrared technology, and speakers capable of monitoring personal conversations. The San Jose Police Department recently issued an apology for the secretive purchase of a drone earlier this year. Police said they wanted to use it to fly over potential bombs, to avoid sending a squad into hazardous situations.
4. Facial Recognition
Facial recognition allows widespread tracking of the public that’s often used by law enforcement. For example, police wearing facial recognition glasses could scan a crowd and possibly locate a suspect or a lost child. Some government agencies have also been using the systems for security and to eliminate voter fraud, in addition to banks and businesses to provide better customer service. But facial recognition technology could result in more cases of identity theft as well as stalking, if the information falls into the wrong hands.
5. Home Surveillance Cameras
With more crimes being caught on surveillance cameras, a growing number of Bay Area police departments are asking homeowners with the cameras to voluntarily register them so they know what is out there. Fremont was one of the early adopters of this camera registration effort, and now cities from Vallejo to San Mateo to Santa Clara are also on the bandwagon, saying there’s not much better evidence than surveillance video. But once police is given unfettered access 24/7, residents have to rely on law enforcement to exercise restraint.
6. “Stingray” Cellphone Surveillance Device
You may think you are private when you’re talking on your cell phone, think again. From an undercover car or even strapped to a detective’s chest walking down the street, police are using a device called a Stingray to gather the serial numbers of surrounding phones. Now, Fremont Police and the Alameda County District Attorney’s office are applying for federal grants to get a new version of Stingray, called Hailstorm. The use of the devices is increasing, potentially at the expense of residents’ privacy.
A network of microphones listening in Oakland, Richmond and plenty of other cities can apparent record a whole lot more than gunshots. A sergeant for the Richmond Police Department told the Business Times he could hear, “doors slamming, birds chirping, cars on the highway, horns honking.”
8. Social Media
The secret service and DEA are notorious for tapping into social media websites like Facebook and Twitter to get information about persons of interest.
9. Snail Mail
Postal Service computers photograph the outside every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States, which can be sent to law enforcement agencies. It’s not known how long the government saves the images, but nearly tens of thousands of pieces of mail each year undergo this type of surveillance.
10. Household Appliances And Smart Energy Meters
Former CIA Director David Petraeus reportedly noted that “smart appliances” connected to the Internet could someday be used by the CIA to track individuals. If your grocery-list-generating refrigerator knows when you’re home, so could the CIA by using geo-location data from your wired appliances, according to SmartPlanet. Smart Meters currently provide highly detailed energy-use which police already use to bust indoor pot farms.
11. Predictive Policing
New predictive policing tools in Santa Cruz, Sacramento, Los Angeles and other cities around the world are helping law enforcement to make the most out of their resources. With roots in business analytics, predictive policing relies on using data analysis to send police are sent to “hot spots” where crime is likely to happen next. But the accuracy of this kind of program depends on the accuracy its fed from crime reports, which aren’t always accurate.
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