Symmetrical surveillance is our only option

No end in sight

After the Boston Marathon bombings, the mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, made an announcement describing how the two men were on their way to Times Square to detonate more explosives. He and Ray Kelly proceeded to explain how imperative it was to have more surveillance cameras installed and more funding for anti-terrorism measures. When arguing the pros and cons of the recently squashed CISPA bill, a few representatives told stories of Boston and how, if hypothetical counter measures were in place, we could have “prevented” such atrocities from happening.

It’s unnerving to think the US government wants more cameras to prevent terrorism when we are already so saturated with them. Ironically, we as a society are often times rallied into an emotional uproar by watching footage of terrorist attacks recorded by the very same surveillance cameras the government claims are inadequate. Regardless, they have no process for determining what is enough surveillance; they could cover the entire country with cameras only to ask for more when another attack occurs.

Increased government surveillance is inevitable, unless people start voicing their opinions and calling their representatives. But why is it that we are the only ones observed? Why are government agencies trying to prevent civilians from recording public servants? If the government is so desperate for more footage, why are they concerned when citizens try to record events? With the coming of cheap, wearable computing devices, I believe we can create a “surveillance standoff” which will help prevent abuses of this power.

Every person becomes a witness

As all new technologies do, Google Glass is creating a stir amongst those who reject technology at first, only to embrace it when it’s socially accepted and common. “What if I’m being recorded and don’t know it?” There’s a light that indicates the camera is active. “How do I know if someone’s talking to me or really watching some movie on their eye screen?” Well, for starters, you can see if something is on their screen. Secondly, if you’re at a bar with friends, how do you know if they’re paying attention to you or watching the game on the TV? It’s called human intuition and we've used it for thousands of years. We’ll be fine.

While people are complaining about potential privacy issues or hypothetical breaches of etiquette, they are ignoring what could be our most powerful counter measure to ‘big brother’ government: always on, ubiquitous recording equipment.

When BART cops fatally shot Oscar Grant in the back while he was on the ground, they immediately looked for anyone filming with cell phones and tried to confiscate them. This would simply not have been possible in a world where every witness is wearing a hidden camera.

And we should be recording police officers, not just for our benefit but for their benefit as well. Police officers are falsely accused of wrong-doing all the time, and any evidence to help exonerate them is valuable and should be available to them for their defense.

How will governments react?

Governments will most likely respond in two ways to Google Glass and equivalent products: they will try and pass legislation limiting these devices in sensitive areas (like police stations and select government buildings), and they may try to force manufacturers to integrate their own approved hardware to control the data, similar to the NSA’s failed Clipper chip. The former is manageable, the latter is pretty scary (and unrealistic). They would probably want the ability to shut down devices within an area and also be able to retrieve/wipe footage remotely. The reason this is unlikely is that it’s a very hard sell and I believe citizens are savvy enough to understand the one-sided benefit. However, we must stay vigilant and put pressure on our representatives to vote against these types of bills.

We need Gargoyles and we need them soon

In 1992, Neal Stephenson wrote a futuristic world where people wear tiny cameras and broadcast constantly. They were called Gargoyles, and they are very close to becoming a reality.

A slightly different version of this idea is based on the limitations of current wireless networks. What I propose is an app that records audio/video to an internal storage device while broadcasting ‘chunks’ of the recording to other nearby devices on a shared local or cell network. This would circumvent the issue of unauthorized deletion of footage (which often occurs in countries controlled by regimes) by dispersing as much of the recording as possible to multiple devices. The app would need to maintain time and location synchronization across devices and handle all incoming and outgoing feeds. While you’re recording, you’re simultaneously broadcasting and receiving other people’s footage. The app can, when presented with a more robust network, asynchronously upload/download footage from an event to further increase the quality of the recording. If for some reason the recording device was shut down during a window of time, it could even attempt to inject footage from another feed in order to maintain a continuous recording.

Now, with a system that is distributed and anonymous, we can simultaneously ‘record the recorders’ without fear that footage from a key witness is forcibly erased. We’ve created a symmetrical surveillance state in public environments.

Call your representatives

We live in a world that is constantly archived, recorded and analyzed and it can be overwhelming. But unless we as a society embrace new technology that can help protect the truth, and bring balance to the government/citizen relationship, we will be slowly inching towards an Orwellian dystopia. This is very easily remedied by voicing concerns to your representatives; SOPA was destroyed by a focused online campaign and should be proof that Democracy still works if citizens take initiative.

Originally published on