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Do Ubiquitous Networks Lead to Ubiquitous Surveillance?
A few years ago, one of my sons went on a nature-study trip with his classmates. When he returned he asked us to guess the most amazing thing they had found in the Czech mountains. "No GSM signal! Can you believe it?" he marvelled. Apparently, this was the first time he had ever been beyond the reach of the wireless links that now tie us together. For him the norm is to have network access wherever he goes.
Japan's Nomura Research Institute claims to have formulated the concept of a "ubiquitous network society" in 2000. But actually this was foreseen much much earlier, when the Commerce Committee of the US House of Representatives evaluated Samuel Morse's telegraph in 1838. In ponderous phrases typical of the era, they wrote:
"With the means of almost instantaneous communication of intelligence between the most distant points of the country, and simultaneously between any given number of intermediate points which this invention contemplates, space will be, to all practical purposes of information, completely annihilated... The citizen will be invested with, and reduce to daily and familiar use, an approach to the HIGH ATTRIBUTE OF UBIQUITY, in a degree that the human mind, until recently, has hardly dared to contemplate seriously as belonging to human agency, from an instinctive feeling of religious reverence and reserve on a power of such awful grandeur."
The phrase CAPITALIZED above was capitalized in the original report, too.
That 19th century politicians marvelled at the concept of ubiquitous connectivity while my son marvelled at its absence shows a profound reorientation. Still Nomura should be recognized for persuading the Japanese government to make creation of "a Ubiquitous Network Society that Spreads Throughout the World" the main aim of their national ICT strategy. To do that they had to come up with strong economic justifications and innumerable examples of services that the broad public would appreciate and corporations would willingly support. Their arguments proved influential outside Japan, too - e.g., the "U-Korea Strategy" adopted in 2005. The "U-society" seems like a juggernaut now. The big question is: can it be steered?
Re-reading Nomura's early studies, it is clear that the ubiquitous services they described facilitate - even imply - ubiquitous surveillance. Yet Nomura glossed over the political risks and opportunities for abusing that power. Elsewhere, however, the relationship between ubiquitous networks and surveillance has been increasingly noted.
In 2002, The Guardian reported that the UK Ministry of Defence's Celldar project exploits ordinary GSM signals reflected by moving objects to "focus in on areas hundreds of miles away and bring up a display showing any moving vehicles and people... The radical new system, which has outraged civil liberties groups, uses mobile phone [emissions as a kind of radar] to allow security authorities to watch vehicles and individuals 'in real time' almost anywhere in Britain..." A more detailed report in Business Week added that since the technique is inexpensive, hobbyists could use it for their own purposes. Indeed, a session was devoted to it at the "What The Hack?" conference in 2005.
In The Transparent Society (1998), author David Brin postulated a "Moore's law" of video surveillance, with cameras "halving in size, and doubling in acuity and movement capability and sheer numbers, every year or two." In an earlier article for Wired magazine he wrote:
"Today, in Britain, several dozen cities and towns have already followed the example first set by King's Lynn, near Norwich, where 60 remote-controlled videocameras were installed to scan known 'trouble spots,' reporting directly to police headquarters. The resulting reduction in street crime exceeded all predictions, dropping to one-seventieth of the former amount in or near zones covered by surveillance. The savings in patrol costs alone paid for the equipment within a few months. Today, more than 250,000 cameras are in place throughout the United Kingdom, transmitting round-the-clock images to 100 constabularies, all of them reporting decreases in public misconduct. Polls report that the cameras are extremely popular with citizens..."
That was 1996. By 2006 there were said to be 4.2 million surveillance cameras in the UK and a typical Londoner is seen by about 300 of them each day. ABI Research predicts that by 2013 the global market for video surveillance equipment will grow 340% - to $46 billion in annual sales.
Yet paradoxically, dramatic reductions in crime seem to fade as the cameras spread. Last month, Mick Neville, head of New Scotland Yard's Visual Images, Identifications and Detections Office, told The Guardian that the UK's multi-billion-pound CCTV network has been "an utter fiasco: only 3% of crimes were solved by CCTV. There's no fear of CCTV..." and it has not had a significant impact on crime. A similar study of video surveillance in Berlin's subway - known appropriately as the U-Bahn - showed that there, too, the cameras "did not reduce the incidence of criminality, but in fact led to a small increase."
Meanwhile - perhaps due to the difficulty of mining video archives for useful information - the British security service MI5 is now seeking routine access to logs recording the movements of the 17 million people who use RFID "Oyster" cards in the UK's public transport system.
In a memorable speech at the Public Sector Forum last April, Spike editor Brendan O'Neill argued that
"the real driving force behind the surveillance society is not a practical one at all; it is a political one. It is underpinned by an existential crisis, if you like, by a powerful and palpable sense amongst government officials that they are increasingly cut off and disconnected from the public. The surveillance and database society is an attempt by officialdom to reconfigure a relationship with the public, to engender a direct, functional relationship to replace the political, citizenship-based relationship that has eroded in recent years...
"If you look at the rise of surveillance measures over the past 10 to 15 years, you will see that it has occurred alongside falling voter turnout and heightened public disillusionment with officialdom. The more that government ministers and officials feel they do not know who we, the public, are - or what we believe and what we want - the more that they have moved towards watching, monitoring and recording our personal information...
"The New Labour government’s surveillance society is not a dark, conspiratorial, Hitlerian attempt to police and punish wayward individuals - rather it is a quite desperate, instinctive effort to ‘only connect’..."
Today's blog entry was inspired by an advertisement that sometimes appears in the right column of this web page: "Wireless-Enabled Digital Video Surveillance" - a Professional Development Seminar in Atlanta, 23 July 2008.
Much as I love radio and want to see it used more fully, if ubiquitous networks inevitably lead to ubiquitous surveillance, then promoting comprehensive wireless coverage may deserve a rethink.
Of course, if ubiquitous surveillance is actually less effective than more targetted deployments - and if it breeds less fear - the arguments get more complicated: it might not be such a bad thing after all.
Or the issue might be moot: Sun Microsystems' chairman Scott McNealy once coldly quipped, "You have zero privacy anyway... Get over it."
What do you think?
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Here's a great AutoWeek article published in 2004 about the privacy risks of automotive telematics and the "blackbox" recorders built into most new cars: "Under the Hood, with Big Brother," by Bob Gritzinger:
11:27 AM, 06/30/2008
Ways to tackle some of these issues are sketched in a paper just presented at the ICT-Mobile Summit in Stockholm (10-12 June 2008): "Privacy- Preserving Network Monitoring: Challenges and Solutions" by Giuseppe Bianchi and others involved in the PRISM project, funded by the European Commission - see
This is PRISM's first publication, so we can hope for more results as their research unfolds.
The paper's discussion of "Regulatory Issues Affecting Network Monitoring" is particularly interesting - especially the finding that "data gathered through passive monitoring may be considered as personal data, [and thus] subject to the data protection legislation."
They also note that the "e-privacy Directive 2002/58/EC  has granted a specific and high degree of protection to traffic and location data, imposing strict limits and requirements to their processing..."
03:43 PM, 06/14/2008
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