Just before Christmas, Muckrock and the ACLU of Massachusetts brought out excellent articles based on a full year of Muckrock’s investigative reporting into Boston PD’s use of automated license plate recognition technology.
ALPR systems automatically photograph and store in a police database the license plates of any car an ALPR-equipped police vehicle passes. The car may be parked or driving. It could be on the Pike, in a driveway, or anywhere a camera can reach. The question was, what does the Boston PD do with the mountain of data once it has it?
One huge question for legislators and the public to understand is: how does pervasive US government surveillance damage the tech industry itself? The Boston area’s economy depends hugely on the health of the tech industry. The United States as a whole benefits enormously from the dominance of US tech firms like Apple, Microsoft, Dropbox, Adobe, Amazon and too many others to name.
Now that we have had a few months since the beginning of the Snowden revelations in June, analysts are beginning to come out with some answers. It seems that the economic impact could be enormous.
With speeches, flyers, and some family friendly songs, a few dozen protesters joined outside the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) yesterday to push back against what they said were increasingly invasive government intrusions into individuals’ privacy.
The event was dubbed an Orwell Day protest, after George Orwell’s 1984 (the date was 8/4), a novel about a totalitarian regime that maintains control largely through an aggressive surveillance program.
“I believe in the constitution, I believe in the Fourth Amendment,” said Alex Marthews, founder of Digital Fourth, a non-profit which advocates for strong Fourth Amendment protections and a strong emphasis on privacy. He blasted BRIC as an ineffective institution that wasted time and money investigating peace activists and graffiti artists rather than more serious threats.
“An agency that does no good and wastes your money should be closed,” he said.
The city of Cambridge, MA is considering whether to switch on its network of surveillance cameras. Councillor Craig Kelley, who chairs the Public Safety Subcommittee [UPDATE: and whom, I should make clear, is skeptical about the merits of surveillance camera systems, scheduled seven public hearings on the newly proposed Security Camera Policy, but like most subcommittee hearings, they were relatively poorly attended]. The City Council voted unanimously on July 2 to ask the Mayor and the City Manager to arrange a better-publicized meeting to discuss the Policy.
That Her Honor the Mayor and the City Manager be and hereby is requested to arrange a community meeting with other stakeholders to discuss the proposed Security Camera Policy submitted by the Police Department for implementation.
The NSA has just vigorously denied that their new Utah Data Center, intended for storing and processing intelligence data, will be used to spy on US citizens. The center will have a capacity of at least one yottabyte, and will provide employment for 100-200 people. With the most generous assumptions [200 employees, all employed only on reviewing the data, only one yottabyte of data, ten years to collect the yottabyte, 5GB per movie], each employee would be responsible on average for reviewing 4500 billion terabytes, or approximately 23 million years’ worth of Blu-ray quality movies, every year.
This astounding and continually increasing mismatch shows that we are well beyond the point where law enforcement is able to have a human review a manageable amount of the data in its possession potentially relating to terrorist threats. Computer processing power doubles every two years, but law enforcement employment is rising at a rate of about 7% every ten years, and nobody’s going to pay for it to double every two years instead. Purely machine-based review inevitably carries with it a far higher probability that important things will be missed, even if we were to suppose that the data was entirely accurate to begin with – which it certainly is not.
So why is anybody surprised that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects and one of around 750,000 people in the TIDE database, was not stopped at the border? That facial recognition software wasn’t able to flag him as a match for a suspect? That the fusion centers, intended to synthesize data into actionable “suspicious activity reports”, flag things too late for them to be of any use? That the Air Force is panicking a little at not having enough people to process the data provided by our drone fleet?
They are missing something very simple. We don’t need a terrorism database with 750,000 names on it. There are not 750,000 people out there who pose any sort of realistic threat to America. If the “terrorism watch list” were limited by law to a thousand records, then law enforcement would have to focus only on the thousand most serious threats. Given the real and likely manpower of the federal government, and the rarity of actual terrorism, that’s more than enough. If law enforcement used the power of the Fourth Amendment, instead of trying to find ways round it, it could focus more on the highest-probability threats.
Yes, they would miss stuff. That’s inevitable under both a tight and a loose system. But a tight system has the added advantages that it protects more people’s liberties, and costs a lot less.
UPDATE: With the help of a New Yorker fact-checker, the figure of “400 billion terabytes” above has been corrected to “500 billion terabytes”.
We heartily recommend that you read the whole thing, but here are the striking take-aways.
We are spending 6% more on incarceration than we are spending on education. Low-level drug offenders sentenced under mandatory minimum laws are driving a substantial portion of the costs. Offenders are routinely overclassified into higher and more expensive levels of security than they really need. And Massachusetts is not being strategic about its incarceration spending to make sure that it is getting the least reoffending for a given budget.
A very human desire to lock everybody up for ever takes no account of the costs, or of how doing that crowds out investment in other things we might like more of, like better education, lead abatement or public transportation, which also in turn have a positive effect on crime down the road.
I wonder if the Lege and the AG’s Office are listening? Or will they keep wasting our taxes on strategies that don’t work?
Nobody’s interested in the Social Science Research Council. Or the Milk Marketing Board. Or the Advisory Committee on Dental Establishments. Or the Dumping At Sea Representation Panel. But Government still pays money to support them.
– Don’t they do a lot of good?
– Of course they don’t. They hardly do anything at all.
– Then let’s abolish them.
– No, no, Prime Minister. They are symbols. You don’t fund them for doing work. You fund them to show what you approve of. Most government expenditure is symbolic.
The fusion centers are the signature initiative of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. They were supposed to collate and report quickly on terror threats. The report makes clear that whatever amount – maybe as much as one billion dollars – has been spent on them, has been wasted. Investigators were unable to find a single case where a fusion center had supplied information that thwarted a terrorist threat. Instead, our money has been spent on collecting a heterogeneous mass of partially reliable information on the activities of peaceful activists.
At the same time, the ACLU of Massachusetts’ new report on the Boston Police Department’s Boston Regional Intelligence Center paints a very similar picture, with more casual person-to-person oppression thrown in (video here).
It’s no surprise if ordinary people who oppose the increased power of government to scrutinize our lives, feel anxious about putting their heads above the parapet. I was anxious myself till I became an American citizen this year. Who wouldn’t feel angry at their taxes being wasted investigating groups like Veterans for Peace?
This isn’t about any rational threat assessment. This is about symbolism and fear. The US government has spent roughly one trillion dollars on anti-terrorism efforts since September 11, 2001. That trillion dollars could have saved any number of lives if deployed on useful things. Our roads and bridges are falling apart, our public school have to scrape for money for sports, arts and field trips, and tens of thousands of Americans die each year for lack of basic preventative health care. Rather than helping with those things, our politicians wrap themselves in the flag and pour tax dollars into a black hole labeled “Anti-Terrorism”, without bothering to find out whether we’re spending too much or too little, or what’s working and what’s not. What’s it to them? It’s not their money. It’s your money and mine, and the party has got to stop.
If the fusion centers can’t demonstrate that they are providing a useful service, they should be closed. The entire intelligence, counter-terrorism and defense budget should be audited every year. We should reimpose Constitutional limits on the deep state, requiring government officials to actually justify what they are doing to neutral third parties in the judiciary. No-one gets a get-out clause, in the name of “terrorism” or anything else.
This isn’t a “far-left” thing or a “far-right” thing. Seems like any issue on which the main parties agree gets ruled out of bounds for discussion. The Sunday talk shows are all about the horse race, who’s up and who’s down and who gaffed and who didn’t. But the sad fact that most Republicans and most Democrats agree on wasting our money on stuff like this, doesn’t make it right.