A little bit of fairness on the Surveillance Superhighway

Unfortunately, the Surveillance Superhighway is here. Now!

Cover from magazine with feature article on using sophisticated networked computer vision systems to track people through vast networks of interconnected cameras. Nothing in the article hints at possible negative aspects or on the possible invasion of privacy. The article speaks only positively of these systems, without any suggestion of a possible negative side-effect. The driving force behind such systems is in both the reduction of shoplifting and usefulness to shopkeepers. In addition to keeping recordings for use in solving shoplifting crimes and the like, the systems track buying habbits and trends of people and build databases of shoppers' behaviour.
Of all worlds, the internet is perhaps the most fair. What can we learn about the internet in order to make our physical world a better place? Our large cities are outsmarting us. We are lost in a vast world that offers neither privacy nor community.

Societies have traditionally struggled to strike a balance between dictatorship and anarchy. The internet is very much in keeping with the American spirit of individual empowerment and self-determination, yet seemingly without many of the pitfalls of a completely Libertarian society where large organizations exploit individuals.

Similarly, the hologram is a metaphor for, and an example of, a distributed means of storing information -- each point on the glass plate captures the entire scene, and were it to be broken into a thousand pieces, each piece would still give us a picture of the original scene. The brain itself, or an artificial neural-net, for that matter, is said to be like the hologram in its distributed storage and processing of information. Indeed, the best way to make a piece of information indestructable is to post it to UseNet. The most notable example, historically, is perhaps that of a data encryption program called PGP (Pretty Good Privacy). This program allows individuals to send scrambled data as unintelligable gibberish that only the intended recipient can unscramble, and so allows individuals to communicate privately. It is perhaps the greatest threat to any totalitarian government. Once the program was distributed it was impossible for any government or other power to destroy it.

Pretty Good Privacy is a story unto itself. Shortly after PGP came into common use, the US Government proposed an alternative encryption, known as Clipper, offering essentially the same functionality as PGP, but with one subtle difference. Clipper had a ``back door'', so that law enforcement officials could unscramble anyone's message, but with a promise that this feature would only be used under special circumstances, involving a court order. Despite the good intention of the Clipper proposal with respect to privacy (e.g. requirement of a court order in order to decode a message), the public outrage at the proposal was tremendous. Washington was shell-shocked by the loud visceral scream of opposition from a wide range of concerns, including privacy advocates, business owners, and acedemia.

Some have put forth the "microphone analogy", saying that Clipper is like requiring everyone to wear a microphone that transmits all private conversations to a central repository in Washington. Despite the fact that these recordings could only be opened with a search warrant, the general feeling was that the crime-reduction obtained by constructing this complete sieve through which all information must pass was not worth the social cost to a complex entity that we call privacy.

Indeed, if you asked people if they would volunteer to wear a clipper-clip-on in order to help law enforcement, it is doubtful that you would find many such volunteers, even among the law enforcement community itself.

What is the difference, then, between a clipper-clip-on and a court-ordered wiretap, or a bug installed with a court-order?

The fundamental difference is the all-encompassing nature of the clipper-clip-on. We are all aware of the potential for our telephones to be tapped, and we more-or-less accept this, but it would be a different story if we were all required to install a little black box in our homes. One could envision such a black box that could not be turned on without a court order, designed with all due respect to privacy, but, nevertheless it is doubtful that a law requiring such a box would be acceptable to most people, even though law enforcement could still eavesdrop using alternative means (thought this would require effort, and it is this expenditure of effort that holds law enforcement in check -- preventing wide-sweeping analysis of all conversations). Fortunately, in addition to PGP to protect the privacy of our conversations in cyberspace, there is also digicash, which allows anonymous financial transactions to be made in the same way that they are made using regular cash.

Seen Through the Slowglass, Darkly.

While we do (fortunately) have some control as to what apparatus may be installed in our homes, we have little such control in a public or commercial space.

Video surveillance has been used for many years in banks, used-car parking lots, and the like. There has however, been a recent paradigm shift in video surveillance, namely a more mysterious nature with the use of dark spherical objects smoked-plastic covers, dark panels, and the like, behind which video surveillance cameras are hidden. There is a fundamental difference between a camera that is out in the open, and one that is concealed.

No doubt we have all seen the ubiquitous mysterious spherical objects that loom above us in many public spaces, shopping complexes, department stores, and the like. And no doubt, we have all seen the ubiquitous dark panels in many public spaces, shopping complexes, automatic teller machines, automatic faucets, automatic urinals, and the like. The darker side of these dark panels is that they appear to conceal their contents. If their purpose is to admit light, then one wonders why they are not clear. Their dark smoky appearance naturally makes one ask questions like "what is inside"? What is being concealed? The tamper-proof screws attest to the fact that many who have been there before might have been curious enough to attempt to open some of these up. If one shines a light into one of these mysterious spherical objects or mysterious dark panels, one notices that they do, in fact, admit light, so it is clear that the light passes through to some unknown entity inside, but that entity is shrouded in some degree of secrecy -- cloaked in darkness.

I once asked a security guard in a shopping complex what these were, and he told me that they were light fixtures. However, I was curious why they were not producing too much light.

The mysterious spherical objects first appeared in gambling casinos. Years ago, before they became popular in other places, one could observe a uniform lattice of these objects hanging from the ceiling of a casino. Of course, some say that there is a darker side to gambling, and it was easy to write off these establishments as places where one would just as soon stay out of. However, shortly after the mysterious spherical objects established themselves in gambling casinos, they began appearing in some of the less reputable department stores -- the real discount stores -- the kind where there was no return policy and where there was a big communal changing room, rather than individual changerooms. As time progressed forward, the mysterious spherical objects began to appear in some of the more "respectable" department stores -- the kind of stores that touted total customer satisfaction and had eager, helpful, cheerful staff. Many department stores have a dense lattice of these mysterious spherical objects perhaps ten across and ten deep (on the order of 100 total) on each floor of the establishment. After some time, the mysterious spherical objects could be found nearly everywhere, in public spaces, businesses, virtually all department stores, and finally, in the shopping complex itself, throughout malls, and even in waiting area above tables.

I was once in a Marriott hotel -- a pretty respectable organization -- in a meeting room, where I had assumed a reasonable degree of privacy, but after spreading out some drawings for an invention I was disclosing in confidence, one of the people to whom I was presenting my invention alerted me to the mysterious spherical objects on the ceiling -- in fact one happened to be right over the table where I had my drawings assembled.


Any small object will capture all of the rays of light that converge at a given point in space. Imagine a small spherical object that can sense the intensity of each of these light rays and transmit this information to a remote location. If one were to envision numerous small objects of this sort, say, small enough to be mixed in with paint and applied to various surfaces, one could envision a "holographic paint" -- a paint that would endow a surface with "holographic vision".

Objects painted with "holopaint" would have an awareness of their surroundings, for they could capture a complete mathematical description of the wavefront of light propagating through the nearby space.

It is not hard to imagine how a ten by ten lattice (100 total) of mysterious spherical objects could be used to generate a hologram of, say, one floor of a shopping complex. A hologram is nothing more than a recording of a variety of perspective views. It allows the person viewing the hologram (or the person in control room to which the mysterious spherical objects are connected) to examine these perspective views, individually or collectively, perhaps at some later time.

If some of the "holopaint" were to be destroyed, everything in the room would still be visible. In fact, all that is needed is a tiny patch of holopaint remaining to see the entire room. A tiny patch of holopaint would act like a hole drilled into the room, through which a miniature video surveillance camera had been inserted. A patch of holopaint would be much like a tiny fragment from a broken hologram which affords the entire view of the object.

Decoys and deception

Part of the deceptive nature of the mysterious spherical objects and the dark panels is that one does not know what is inside. For example, if one were to require each household to install a mysterious black box, and if not all of them "worked", say, only one in a thousand "worked", and the other 999 were decoys, the boxes would still have the potential to create a distopian society. It is doubtful that many would volunteer to have these boxes in their homes even if they knew that there was only a small chance that theirs was a "real" one.

However, in the outside world, where we have much less control over our surroundings, we are often thrust into a world where the powers that be have foisted upon us a large number of mysterious spherical objects and dark panels that may or may not be decoys.

Holopaint seems like the kind of thing that belongs to a distopian Orwellian future. In fact, even a small amount of holopaint, in a world where only law enforcement officials would know which surfaces were "holopainted" and which were decoys could make for a dystopian future.

The internet community is very "holographic" -- very distributed and undestructable. In what ways is the internet similar to and different from a physical space that is painted with "holopaint".

Small town - big city analogy

If holopaint really existed, holopaint salespeople might argue that an "holopaint" society is much like a small town, where people lose their anonymity in exchange for added security and safety. The holopaint vendor might make the following analogy: in a small town somewhere in the past -- back when people left their doors unlocked -- if you collapsed from a heart attack, perhaps a neighbour would come over to borrow some sugar, and end up saving your life. The argument would go on to say that the holopaint takes on the purpose of a thoughtful neighbour, since law enforcement officials might periodically check up on people to make sure that they are not in any danger. The argument here is that the Orwellian society is much like a small town, while the big city is at the other end of the spectrum.

However, the "holopaint" world and the small town differ if we look at them on another axis -- the axis of symmetry and fairness. Both the small town and the big city are very symmetrical in the sense that each individual knows roughly the same amount of information others as they know about him or her. In a small town you know what everyone else is up to and they know what you are up to; in the big city, less so. However, in the Orwellian society, the information flow is unidirectional. The Orwellian society is very different from the internet. The small town, on the other hand, is quite similar to the internet -- the early settlers of rural America are much like the early pioneers of cyberspace.

The holographic window of cyberspace

It is unfortunate that various members of society have needed to resort to surveillance, and that the vast networks of interconnected surveillance cameras are present in our world. It is always difficult for privacy advocates to be heard, for the arguments like "it gives us a lower insurance rate" and "it reduces crime" are hard to refute.

Privacy advocates have concentrated on calling for government to step in and pass laws limiting the use of surveillance. However privacy advocates are caught between two (or more) giants -- government, which is, itself often viewed as the culprit of privacy invasion, and big business. We can consider another alternative to this dilemma -- an alternative that is rooted in the spirit of the internet. If we cannot eliminate surveillance, what might we do to at least move up the symmetry axis if even only by a small amount?

We will soon all be wearing computers. Our bodies will become a net. These computers will be endowed with many of the features of their big brothers -- audio and video acquisition capability, and the like. We will, no doubt, take "electronic notes" of various occurrences around us. We will probably continue to record classroom lectures as we've always done in the past using audiotape or pen and paper, but there will be an important difference, namely the use of remote storage and interconnectivity, endowing the individual to make an indestructable record of fact -- a capability formerly only attainable by government or large organizations. An incident like the Rodney King beating will be recorded and replicated over a distributed system in a manner that makes the destruction of this information impossible.

We will become "cyborgs", with computers integrated into our clothing, and perhaps even our bodies. We will become witnesses to many events, and perhaps even our wearable computers will become witnesses to many events to which we are not even aware, sending data back and forth to other "agents" over a distributed 'net.

We will have the choice whether to escrow or not to escrow our experiences. If we wish, we will have the ability to send text, sound, and pictures to a number of recipients that we ourselves do not even know, if we wish to not know.

We will negotiate with each other, not with Big Brother, when it comes to privacy issues. If three of us are sitting around a table, at Legal Seafoods or Dunkin Doughnuts, one of us might say something like "I have this invention I was working on... please keep what I am about to say in confidence". You cannot negotiate with a dark panel on the ceiling, or a one-way mirror built into a wall, but you can negotiate with another human being. In a group of three people, three people should decide whether a conversation should be private or public. This decision should not be made by the restaurant owner.

Read about privacy issues of wearable cameras versus surveillance cameras in our society.