The Citizen Surveillance State

By on April 19th, 2013 in Privacy & Security, Societal Impact, Topics

Like everyone, I listened to the news about the Boston Marathon bombings on Monday afternoon with horror. I’m not from the area myself, but I have a lot of friends who live there, and a lot of friends who run marathons. Luckily for my personal peace of mind that afternoon, those two groups don’t intersect for me, and I was so grateful as one by one, so many people posted to Facebook and twitter that they were OK. I know many other people weren’t so lucky.
It’s also been fascinating to watch over the last several days as the FBI has asked anyone with photos or video of (or before) the bombings to send them in. There must be tens of thousands of submissions for them to sift through, and yesterday the FBI posted several pictures taken from various sources of two men they are seeking information about in connection with the blasts. It’s remarkable how quickly law enforcement has been able to pinpoint suspects given the huge volume of evidence they must have had to sift through, but it was virtually inevitable that they would have photos and video of whomever did this.
I’ve heard it said that this is probably the most photographed and recorded terrorist event in history, and I’m sure that’s true. Sure, this is partially because the Boston Marathon is a huge public event, but it’s also because we are living in an era of citizen surveillance. Very simply, if you go out in public and are around other people, there’s a pretty decent chance you are being recorded. Some of this is because of the ever increasing use of security cameras and cctv, but it’s also because nearly everyone is carrying a recording device around with them in the form of a phone.
As a society, we are still figuring out how to deal with this. I’m sure they meant well, but redditors publicly misidentified two subjects, likely putting them in danger. Reddit eventually stepped in to stop things, but if you had been one of the two guys who’s personal information had been posted identifying you as a suspect, that probably too way to long to happen.
So we live in an era of mass citizen surveillance – that is to say, (mostly unintentional) surveillance by other citizens. Of course, most of us think of this data as not being organized in any cohesive way, but actually, a lot of it is. Most people don’t realize it, but almost all smart phones by default geo-tag all photos they take. When you post them, you’re not just posting the image, you’re posting where and when it was taken. Users can turn this feature off, but since most of them don’t realize it exists, they don’t. Facebook, Instagram, and Flickr all have APIs that allow searches by geographic area. Right now this isn’t something most people can actually do, but for law enforcement or anyone with programming skills, it isn’t difficult at all.
What does all this mean? I’m not really sure, actually. But it did all remind me to switch off geo-tagging on my phone.