Big Brother arrives in Cuba St

Stuff article from Monday: “Big brother CCTV cameras and sensors to help solve Wellington's begging issues

Big Brother is right.

Justin Lester, our current Big Brother

The loving hand of Big Brother

Firstly, the Wellington City Council is spending at least $125,000 on creating a system to more effectively police at-risk people: beggars, the homeless, drunks, and addicts. It could have spent that money providing services that would actually help some of those people so they wouldn't be on the street in the first place, but no, true to form with its "don't give to beggars" campaign, it would rather hide the problem through increased security. The poster campaign didn't work, so perhaps where propaganda failed, authoritarianism will succeed, they think - authorities now have the ability to respond to begging "in real time".

a street terrorist

At best, this is treating symptoms instead of causes. More likely, it will further stigmatize these people, and sometimes criminalize them (since that's what we do with the mentally ill). If the help existed, these people would already be getting it. Many passers-by who stop to talk to them, tell them about the available help (which of course they’re already using if they can). How is security - or worse, the court system - going to help? Apart from putting people who need help further out of sight and out of mind, that is.

taking out the trash

The loving eyes and ears of Big Brother

More worryingly for the rest of us, at some point last year the Council deployed a system to spy on everyone on Cuba St - and will soon expand it to many other streets. It is targeted at beggars, but every passer-by is captured. The system is used to track movements, create statistics, and record conversations.

long range dish antenna microphone
an acoustic sensor

Reading the article, you might have missed that last part, glossing over the term "acoustic sensors". That’s right, the journalists whose job it is to tell you what’s going on, are calling microphones “acoustic sensors”. What an interesting euphemism. This isn’t journalism, this is a press release. Nothing to see here - nothing to see / hear.

I’ve had some very personal conversations with beggars sitting on Wellington streets. I’m not at all okay with the idea of these conversations being recorded.

Let’s be clear: This is a real-time, computer-assisted mass surveillance system searching for conversations of interest. Exactly the kind of thing Prime Minister John Key assured us our secret spy agencies do not do (despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, cheers Ed Snowden). But who cares, now it’s so normal even our local council does it!

The Privacy Commission has advised the Council not to identify individuals. Assuming the Council complies, for instance blurring faces and changing voices (unlikely), this is not nearly enough protection. People can still be identified by the way they walk, the words they use, or by further association with other data. Once the data is collected, the full power of modern data analytics can be brought to bear to re-identify individuals at any point in the future. Unless the Privacy Commission is keeping tabs on how the data is being used at all times from now until the system is destroyed (they won’t), and the data is kept incredibly securely (it’s not), the system is very open to abuse. And such abuse will be very tempting. Here's a likely scenario:

A violent crime has been committed on Cuba St, or the criminal is suspected of arriving or leaving the area via Cuba St. The Police demand access, and the Council complies, because of course - we should catch the criminal. The Police use de-anonymization techniques and bring in several people for questioning, including you. You had nothing to do with the crime, but you're now questioned by police because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Where you went, who you were with, and what you said, can and will be used against you. Hopefully that evidence can't be used in a court of law, but it will at least be used to procure further evidence that is admissible.

There are other likely scenarios. Such as anyone involved with the system misusing it for their own ends, or out of sheer curiosity. Such as Anonymous making a statement by hacking the system and releasing the data to the public. Such as the Council selling part of the data to a marketing company, in the mistaken belief that anonymization works.

all seeing eye icon
only spying can keep you safe, nothing to hide so nothing to fear, only deviants need privacy, we will never misunderstand you but if we do it's because you were hiding something from us

Of course it's not likely that this will happen to you. But the mere fact that it is possible, has a chilling effect. Skinny-dipping in the bucket fountain? Now recorded for eternity. Jokes about grabbing Donald Trump? It could land you in prison - if you think that’s an exaggeration, you don’t know the story of the Urewera Four.

When you walk down the street, now you're aware your actions are being recorded and may one day be used against you - not out of malice, but out of misunderstanding - which is mostly what privacy is about.


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