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Archive for February, 2012

Why this anti-INDECT hype?

February 25, 2012 6 comments

Today I passed the anti ACTA demo in Vienna and got a flyer by the Austrian pirate party. It said, among other things, that INDECT is the next surveillance law that the EU is preparing. This, and the rest of the anti-INDECT hype, just makes me mad for several reasons:

  • INDECT is not a directive or law, it is a research project by 17 partners, mainly from Poland
  • projects like INDECT get funded all the time, both by the EU and national governments
  • there is nothing secret about it, anyone can form a consortium and apply for funding and it is in the interest of all participants (mostly universities) that results are published both in scientific as well as mainstream media (e.g. the list of Austrian security projects is easily accessible online).

In my opinion, the fact that a project like INDECT gets funded does not mean that the European Commission is planning to surveil all of its citizens and is planning a police state. Public safety and security is a research topic like any other. The possibility that this technology can be used to create an Orwellesque police state does not mean that anything like that will happen.

By the way: Such projects have to pass the scrutiny of an ethics committee and are required to implement data and privacy protection in all of their development stages. Of course, if this is taken seriously or not depends on the consortium members.

It is important to watch developments in this area and it is important that legislation complements all new technological developments. It is important that in new technology, especially in surveillance, Privacy by Design principles are built in. And a police state where personal freedom is threatened is nothing desirable. But projects like INDECT are no sign that this will happen. I wish INDECT would be treated by the media as it is: A research project with (in my opinion) partly unrealistic goals and maybe questionable intensions. But not a secret EU plan to control citizens.

The Obama Data Election

February 21, 2012 1 comment

Just a recommendation about an excellent Guardian article about the Obama data election. It describes how his 2008 social network campaign was nothing compared to 2012.

(c) Blake Coughenour

Back then, only 40 million US citizens were in Facebook, now this number has grown to 160 million. And this Facebook information is the basis for a vast, unified campaign database, allowing the campaign to target each voter individually. They already gathered information on millions of supporters during the last campaign and are expanding this database now by asking supporters on the web and all Obama-related platforms to register using Facebook Connect. This way, they get all public information, such as names, birth dates and interestes.

It looks like Obama will raise up to one billion (this is a first!) USD through online donations (up from 500 million USD in 2008); and over 98% of these donations are under $250. This is a very good example how power (and money!) through data collection using social networks can be leveraged. Of course, each person agreed to this by logging in using Facebook Connect.

Guardian: Obama, Facebook and the power of friendship: the 2012 data election

Why do Anti-ACTA protesters expose themselves online?

February 11, 2012 2 comments

Today was the day of world-wide anti-ACTA demonstrations. An impressive number of people went to the streets to prevent ACTA. After SOPA/PIPA was put on hold and Germany recently hesitated to sign ACTA it looks like protests against online legislation can actually make a difference. These are good examples that democracy still works.

People protested for their right to privacy online and against surveillance of internet traffic. Considering this it surprised me what I found on a map by stoppacta-protest.info, showing all anti-ACTA protests world-wide. While the numbers of protests is quite impressive (especially in Europe), it is even more impressive to find for every event a Facebook event page. On them you find, publicly, all people (of course including name and profile pic) who were invited and attended the protests! For example, for the event in Vienna I see every one of 48,474 people who were invited and all of the 8,606 people who attended the event. Whoever complains about police filming at protests should consider if they really want to make it even easier to track who is attending.

While of course every Facebook user can choose by him/herself if they expose themselves like this I postulate that most of them are not aware that this information is publicly available. For me this feels especially ironic for an event that tries to protect us against online surveillance.

Drones in urban environments: New helpers in the streets or surveillance machines?

February 6, 2012 Leave a comment

Though it does not specifically state that drones can be used for surveillance purposes, German “Bundestag” recently allowed drones as a new classification and part of air traffic if used for traffic purposes (English translation). As heise.de states, this makes way for drones being used in the future not only by security authorities but by private persons and firms as well. This is interesting, since German police have been using drones in recent years already and have been testing new systems. With little success however. Before surveillance and identification of persons, for example at demonstrations, will be possible, some time will go by. This is a good excuse however, to look at UAVs (drones, that is) from a privacy point of view.

UAV use will definitely increase in coming years. It is an active field of research that is being investigated in numerous research projects around the globe. Existing systems are used on a regular basis in wars such as in Afghanistan by US forces. These systems are usually remote-controlled with a human remote pilot flying them, allowing minimum risk when killing people (yes, that’s not very sportsmanlike). In urban areas they have the potential of one day even helping to avoid catastrophes like in Duisburg or detecting riots early. Mirco aerial vehicles (MAV) today are already very small (down to 15cm) and in the future will be as small as insects. They will be piloting themselves and will automatically analyze what is happening on the ground. In several research projects the possibility of collaborating micro-drone swarms, which  stay in the air for a long time or even forever is investigated (check out this interesting publication on MAVs).

In battle-field situations nobody cares about privacy but as soon as they are used in urban, “civilian” applications, privacy becomes an issue.

Of course, any existing laws for spying on persons are valid for UAVs as well. If a helicopter flies over demonstrators or a UAV does not make much difference. The same goes, in principle, for recording video surveillance material or automatically analyzing movement of persons. Today, video surveillance is granted (or not) based on the reason and the place where it is performed. Drones however can change their place of surveillance very fast so new privacy regulations, which consider drones, will be necessary.

Today, persons cannot be identified from such images, so for person surveillance this technology is just not suitable (yet). The horror scenario of UAVs roaming our streets, automatically looking for suspicious persons is not real yet and probably won’t be for some time because it is just not feasible. Applications where drones do make sense are situations where it is too dangerous for humans to perform tasks (such as in war and after catastrophes) and where they can give additional information from a different perspective (for example during football matches, demonstrations and riots).

Today’s technical possibilities (outside the lab) should not be exaggerated, we are not there yet. However, it is good to ask questions about privacy early and that already today these considerations are worked into laws. Ryan Calo, director for privacy and robotics at Stanford, even postulates that drones will eventually INCREASE our personal privacy by being openly visible on the streets and thus triggering a wide-spread privacy debate. Contrary to phone tapping and internet traffic surveillance drones will be a very visible kind of surveillance that will make it much more obvious to discuss privacy issues.

UAVs are a technology to watch, which will make significant technological strides forward in coming years. It will be exciting to see how it and its regulation will develop in the near future.

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