What’s the difference between spying and surveillance?

It’s worth reading one of the best examples of investigative journalism I’ve seen in a long time, the interesting article by Monte Reel in Bloomberg Businessweek last week, “It’s not spying if they’re always watching”, in which he describes how in Baltimore since early this year the police have been experimenting with a system of aerial surveillance aircraft, adapted from the time of the US military presence in Iraq, without informing the citizens of the existence of the program.

The plane, a small Cessna equipped with a series of sophisticated cameras, captures an area of ​​about 80 square kilometers up to ten hours a day and continuously transmits images in real time to a number of analysts on the ground, who check and file them if necessary. The system, marketed by Persistent Surveillance Systems, is routinely used in the investigation of all kinds of crimes, from theft to shootings, along with events like demonstrations or protests with potential for public disorder.

The creator of the company, who developed a system in Iraq to locate people who placed roadside bombs along routes taken by US military convoys, and who also worked for a time checking the activity of drug cartels and organized crime in Ciudad Juarez from the air, was looking for a city in which to market the system for civilian use and that would serve to convince other cities of its usefulness. He describes the system as “a Google Earth with TiVo function”, which is to say maps that can be rewound.

Although the quality of the images obtained do not allow recognition of people, nor even in many cases vehicle models, they can place the time of an explosion or commission of a particular crime, locating people or nearby vehicles, winding back to find out information about their background, previous movements, etc., and eventually, to obtain images of sufficient quality to make a firm identification by reviewing the images captured by cameras on the ground at a time when the system reports that a particular individual has passed ahead of one or more of them.

This is a real eye in the sky, able to follow people’s movements in a city for hours, allegedly not directly breaking the law because it does not allow for more than following small unidentified pixels, but, properly coordinated with other systems, provides an unexpected level of surveillance. Asked about the news story after a police press conference, the mayor of Baltimore responded to criticism by saying

This isn’t surveilling or tracking anyone. It’s about catching those who choose to do harm to citizens in our city.”

Welcome to the future. One in which cities are constantly monitored from the air and everywhere else using omnipresent combinations of cameras and sensors that are increasingly accurate as technology develops. Networks of cameras in stores, private homes and public places can now identity a person even their face cannot be seen clearly or is hidden by using biometric patterns that feed machine learning algorithms that compare them with other images stored from previous occasions. Biometrics has created an ecosystem in which the first thing our iPhone will do it it is stolen is transmit the fingerprints, images, video or audio of the person who has it in case the information can be used to identify them.

Is this going to make us any more safer, or have we woken up in an Orwellian nightmare? Is this the logical extension of the belief that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear? The way society thinks about such issues is evolving at high speed, as technology continually comes up with new possibilities. In which direction do you think we’re heading?


(En español, aquí)