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Acts of succession

The drones were pretty against the dimming summer sky. No, not that kind of drones. These belonged harmlessly to members of the DC Area Drone User Group, although the fly-up's organizers warned that some had cameras.

It is the 2014 edition of Computers, Freedom, and Privacy. At this event last year, the same group said these drones were no threat to privacy because they were like "flying lawnmowers". The loud buzzing noise kind of made their point; these drones' biggest threat is probably that they'll inspire reports of UO sightings. I'm sure the DC Area Drone User Group are very nice, ethical guys; it's how their toys will be exploited later that I worry about

Shortly afterwards, the former governor of Pennsylvania and first Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, pitched his right to be a privately private person now that he's left public service. Isn't this what we all want? To be private when we want, public when we choose? The irony was lost on no one.

These two elements collided in a fascinating demonstration of the aerial surveillance system that Ross McNutt's company, Persistent Surveillance Systems, provides to cities like Dayton, Ohio to help reduce crime (he also offers surveillance of airports and borders).

McNutt's aerially mounted custom-built cameras collect images too small to identify anybody - a dot per person - or read license plates (the cameras are looking down) but they do show two cars converging on a location, someone getting out of a third car and falling over, and a fourth car waiting elsewhere and meeting them afterwards. The fifth car that drives by turns into a driveway a few blocks away. A witness, maybe?

Trained analysts can step back and forth through time in these pictures, establishing roughly what happened, where the perpetrators and witnesses came from, and where they went. The police are then told where to look and given street-level location pictures sourced from Google Earth. McNutt explained the boundaries: his company is hired by a city; the contract with the city specifies how long to keep the data, often 14 days, almost always less than 45; the data is reviewed only in response to crime reports. The entire cost of the system including aircraft, command center, and the cameras @@ has built using off-the-shelf lenses is less than the price of a single police helicopter. When asked what abilities he'd like to add, McNutt didn't opt for higher resolution or greater intelligence; what he'd prefer is a wider area. His moments of greatest frustration come when a perpetrator vanishes off the edge of the area he's surveilling and he can't follow.

Now, this is a guy who's absolutely trying to do things right: he's consulting CFPers on his privacy policies! As for consent, probably lots of people in these cities welcome anything that reduces crime: a quarter of Dayton households are hit every year. The broader view was summed up the ACLU's Jay Stanley: "Our worst nightmares are coming true." Will the next generation of McNutts be as careful and well-meaning?

Elsewhere everyone is fretting about two things. First is the Freedom Bill, which has been so badly weakened no one is entirely sure whether to support it and hope it's improved or oppose it because what if it's worse than nothing?. Second is counteracting pervasive surveillance. "Technology " is a popular answer, but as many CFPers remember, "technology " was the early 1990s answer, and the crypto wars ended with intelligence agencies undermining the tools we trusted. This is what we've learned in a year: the situation is much worse than we thought. Today's answer - technology, policy/law, and civil action at both local and global levels - is the journey of a million miles that begins with a single, painful step.

And, as Katherine Albrecht commented in the Children and Privacy panel (and Terri Dowty said so often while running Action for the Rights of Children), the next generation is at risk of being conditioned to accept pervasive surveillance. Her particular example is the trend for schools to require students to wear ID tags - and sometimes RFID tags - at all times. Outside of school, says Danah Boyd in her recent book, It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, many teens have little privacy. Constantly monitored by parents and teachers, lockers and rooms subject to search, restricted in where they may go and with whom...online may be the only place they feel free.

Compare and contrast to the truckers studied by Karen Levy. Independent, authority-resistant, culturally macho, for decades they have shown compliance with federal regulations by keeping paper logs. Now, trucking companies are opting for electronic monitoring, and meeting resistance. Many older ones are threatening to quit. But will younger ones recognize the profound cultural shift? Or one day soon will we see an entry in Beloit College's annual Mindset List: "Everyone has always been under total electronic surveillance"?

Even faced with all this, the technologist and science fiction writer Ramez Naam remained optimistic: "The past was worse," he said in his talk. "The culture is changing." Let's hope.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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