Looking Big Brother in the Eye

As a result of my recent notariety, and a referral from a fellow neighborhood activist, I received an invitation to host a breakout session at last week’s “Synthetic Portland” conference.

You’ll remember that after 9/11, there was much talk of law enforcement and intelligence not exchanging information. This conference was about fixing that, particularly with respect to local law enforcement. One of the lesser known industry clusters here in Portland is security software. And those firms were the host of this conference.

The idea of a ‘synthetic’ city is a computer model that contains all of the data about the structure of the city: transportation networks, building floor plans, etc. The model can be used to for disaster planning or real-time reaction to incidents. A trivial example is understanding what parts of the downtown would be flooded if the Willamette rises ‘x’ feet above flood stage.

Now imagine this synthetic city overlaid with real-time data ranging from measles cases to 911 calls. The technology can do this today.

The next step could be data from cameras attached to traffic signals – a tool that helped track down the culprits behind the London bombings. Is it that hard to imagine it here?

Would it make us safer? Probably, but at what cost?

My breakout was on “the citizen perspective” and the focus as you might expect (especially in Portland) was about civil liberties. If we’re worried about the FBI keeping files on our citizens, how do we feel about Homeland Security taking our pictures on the street?

The arc of technology development suggests to me that some portions of this are unavoidable. What kind of policies do we need to put in place to protect our civil rights and prevent abuse?

One response to “Looking Big Brother in the Eye”

  1. I’d feel a little better about this sort of thing if all public surveillance cameras were linked to websites. That way, anybody in the world can log in and see what the government sees. It’s also a way to make sure the cameras are watching public streets (where you have no reasonable expectation of privacy) and not turned to look into windows and such.

    I can see some advantages to letting everyone watch. If the cameras are visible and people know anyone can be watching at any time, there’s potential for a good “eyes on the street” effect when it comes to public safety. In fact, I can see this as a new stage of community policing; let people monitor the streets and click a “hey pay attention” button to flag the police (and other observers) if something starts happening.

    “Eyes on the street” also works in overseeing police interactions with the public. A bit harder to get away with excessive force when there’s a camera and an unknown number of witnesses watching it at any given time.

    As long as the cameras only record what’s happening out in public, and anyone (not just the government) can access them, I’m not too worried.

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