Introduction to the four-part series
Our recent articles on The Internet of Things, Interactive Insurance Polices, and Financial Surveillance highlight all the different ways information about you is collected. We felt it was therefore worth writing about the most common types of ‘veillances’ as well as alluding to some potential future capabilities, the four to be covered are:
Each will be split into three subcategories being what it is (the definition) how it works (what data is collected or created and from which sources) and how it impacts you (the risks and where possible, what you can do to reduce it).
What it is
Most people have a good idea of what surveillance is and can give some everyday examples of surveillance in action. However, thanks to advances in technology and the growing sophistication that goes with it year after year, surveillance as a term has spawned other derivatives or more aptly, other ‘veillances’ have been coined. These other types of veillances include the Dataveillance, Sousveillance, and Uberveillance which we will explore in the next three parts of this series. It’s therefore important to distinguish that surveillance isn’t all encompassing and has a more standalone definition compared to before the digital age really took off.
From the perspective of a literal translation the term ‘surveillance’ is derived from the French word ‘surveiller’ which means ‘to watch over’. The term is formed in two parts:
- ‘Sur’ which is French for ‘from above’ or ‘over’, and
- ‘Veillance’ which means ‘watching’ or ‘monitoring’
A modern interpretation of surveillance therefore refers to any watching or monitoring that occurs from above eye level in public or private spaces, an ‘eye in the sky’ so to speak. Examples include CCTV cameras, drones, security cameras, satellite images and so forth. Surveillance is primarily focused on utilising audio and/or visual monitoring devices to gain video, audio, or still image observation over a targeted person or place. Surveillance therefore isn’t social media serving you certain ads based on a website you visited previously or your GPS watch tracking your exercise and making predictive suggestions for your training. This definition of surveillance will become more important once you consider the other three veillances covered in this series.
How it works
Given most people are aware of how surveillance devices and systems work we’ll devote this section to more of a discussion about the state of surveillance today. Writing this in January of 2021 the world is still dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic which has once again seen extended use of mass surveillance by governments around the world. Typically, surveillance is justified as a means to keeping people or property safe. Most people agree that having cameras in airports, for example, helps reduce the risk of aircraft hijackings and makes flying safer. Many people have secured their personal property such as their home with surveillance devices such as internal and external cameras upgrading from where they previously only had motion sensor alarms (which are not considered surveillance devices).
COVID-19 saw governments utilise drones, CCTV, and facial recognition systems to enforce lockdown rules and monitor social distancing behaviour. If one was to factor out the global pandemic this type of extended use of mass surveillance would be an outrage to the general public. The public would protest that societies are becoming a ‘police state’ or ‘surveillance state’ and any politician for the move would be promptly voted out of power. However, once you attach the circumstances of a global pandemic, objections greatly decline – because personal safety trumps privacy to the average person are surveillance becomes an accepted part of the process of living with a pandemic.
We covered this in our article Crisis Surveillance where we highlighted our concerns with this type of trade-off. The main concern tends to be once these types of additional powers are granted to governments in extraordinary circumstances, they rarely have an expiration date at the conclusion of the crisis, nor do they have a sunset clause. It could be reasonably assumed that in some hypothetical scenario where COVID-19 is defeated by a successful vaccine (or whatever) that governments will suddenly relinquish their added powers or shut down the extra surveillance infrastructure or capability.
Surveillance can of course be used by governments for sinister reasons or ones beyond what society has agreed to. The Snowden Revelations vindicate this point as many people were unaware, shocked, and eventually outraged by the level of surveillance (and other veillances) being done by intelligence agencies. The saying ‘give someone an inch and they’ll take a mile’ comes to mind and it’s the consequences of everything that can happen between that inch and that mile that is concerning.
One thing that happens as part of human nature is, we behave differently when we know we are under surveillance or being recorded. Even when people are not doing anything wrong, they ‘self-censor’ to project a behaviour that they believe is expected in the situation they are in. Naturally, the best example at hand is the country which is the pioneer of mass surveillance of its population – China.
China has successfully used surveillance to oppress or otherwise control its population with programs such as the Social Credit System. Whilst the Social Credit System itself isn’t surveillance its success is enabled by and closely related to China’s mass surveillance systems. This article would explode in size if we went into the details of each and as we’re only using it as an example, so here are a few links for further reading if you’re not aware of either:
It is not enough to say that China is a unique example because it’s a totalitarian regime with a communist ideology or other labels to divorce it from western democracies. China is proactively developing more sophisticated surveillance architectures and systems to keep any uprisings quashed and out of the western media to remain in power and continue to control its citizens. This could be argued is why we haven’t seen another Tiananmen Square style event as political dissidents tend to ‘disappear’ now instead. This article too highlights how intentional China is in keeping western attention at bay by scheduling their show trials over the festive season when western media is operating at reduced capacity. China is very aware of the power of watching and being watched.
The good folks at Comparitech published an article about which countries and cities have the most CCTV cameras. Click on their name there for a link to the full article but a summary of their findings are:
- 18 of the top 20 most surveilled cities are in China, these 18 cities have between 25 and 119 cameras per 1,000 people
- 54% of global cameras in use are in China
- The top 3 most populated cities in the world have the following number of cameras: Tokyo 1 per 1000 people, Delhi 14 per 1,000, Shanghai 36 per 1,000.
- An analysis indicated that having more cameras barely correlated with a lower crime index (remember safety is almost always the main justification used for increasing surveillance). (1)
This article though isn’t designed to be an attack on China, China is just the extreme example of what life can be like for ordinary citizens when governments have access to exponentially growing surveillance infrastructure. Using an extreme example isn’t always wise when trying to make a point as people may dismiss it as being too farfetched, unrealistic, or too incompatible with their current situation which in this context is our western culture. However, the signs are there that we are on a similar track with every developed western country appearing to be ramping up the amount of CCTV cameras they have in operation – UK, USA, Australia, Canada – they’re going down the same track. Even the countries regularly listed as leaders of freedom and small government such as your Switzerlands, Denmarks and Norways are onboard. The number of cameras per person in China seems outrageous today, but it may be completely normal for the next generation living in western countries.
Impacts to Privacy
The impacts to privacy are obvious, especially if you’re aware or did read the Wikipedia articles linked earlier regarding China’s use of mass surveillance and accompanying Social Credit System. However, the impacts to privacy are growing once again thanks to the technological revolution, take the development of surveillance cameras themselves as an example:
- When they were first introduced, they were low-resolution devices which recorded on to tapes. They were expensive and local governments only rolled them out in certain areas of interest. They also required a lot of people power to watch the footage and identify something of interest
- As they developed, they were coupled with motion detection so that they only recorded when movement occurred, reducing blank recordings
- Footage eventually became digital, was able to be accessed online, and able to make phone calls to security personnel automatically
- As time moved on again technology got faster and with increased volumes of cameras being produced the cost per camera came down as critical mass was reached
- Today cameras have advanced to having crystal clear resolution allowing for incredibly accurate facial recognition. This is coupled with the development of AI to remove the time and cost intensive human required to study the footage
- Costs have come down so much allowing for the adoption by private citizens to monitor their home or small business (as outlined earlier). This has allowed for a greater net of surveillance by allowing law enforcement access to this private network of external cameras, such as the doorbell or front yard cameras capturing the footpath or road.
The next point to be added to that list of evolution are things being worked on today such as emotion recognition, accurate object recognition (such as weapons) and identifier recognition (such as tattoos).
The evolution from analogue cameras to interconnected high-definition smart cameras is taking place right now and so with every new surveillance gadget (such as the doorbell camera) society makes another small privacy concession to the ‘surveillance for safety’ argument. This could impact future generations by:
- Impacting freedoms of expression and association
- Scrutinising one’s behaviour based on it being different from previous recorded behaviours
- Target marginalised groups or communities
- Increase racial discrimination
- Increase risks associated with increased volumes of surveillance data being breached by bad actors
- An overall reduction in sense of privacy and private spaces
How to reduce your exposure to surveillance
Most of us cannot do much to reduce our exposure to surveillance systems in public places as they’re legally operated by governments or businesses leasing those premises. However, we can do a lot to reduce our exposure in our own private spaces, as mentioned a few times in this article home security has evolved from motion sensor alarms to high-definition cameras being affordable to most people. Some precautions in this space are:
- Ensure the internal parts of your home are and remain a private / camera free space and only get external cameras to monitor the four sides of your property. Don’t forget about cameras on other devices, not necessarily part of your security system. Webcams, baby monitors, toys, and other devices with cameras have all been infiltrated by malicious actors. This is because developers and users prioritise ease of use over device security making these types of cameras relatively easy to compromise by bad actors. We covered this in our IOT 101 article for some real examples
- Utilise other types of security devices, such as reed switches, instead of cameras to protect the inside of your home and support your motion sensor alarm system
- If you must use cameras internally to protect items of value avoid putting cameras in rooms where you may be captured nude or in compromising situations. Limit internal cameras to garages, cellars, and the front door and avoid the bedroom and other, more private, rooms
- Keep blinds and curtains closed when changing, engaging in compromising activities, working on sensitive work, etc
- When you move home or office consider security companies offering ‘bug sweeps’ and similar counter surveillance services to identify the presence of any hidden surveillance equipment left behind by previous tenants
- Reduce the risk of surveillance by your own security system (when access is gained by a bad actor) by ensuring you purchase cameras that encrypt recordings. Secure access to the footage with 2FA if available, a strong password, and regular firmware updates
- Remember that while external cameras may not compromise the idea of keeping the inside of your house a private space, they are still surveillance devices. They can be compromised, and you and your family’s routines can be monitored.
Away from the home you can:
- Avoid having private or sensitive conversations where audio recording could be within close proximity and having sensitive documents open where video recording can capture the content. Conceptually speaking think of creating your own idea of a SCIF and have meetings of a sensitive nature away from surveillance infrastructure. Meeting on a park bench rather than a café would be a simple example of avoiding public surveillance
- Be aware that hotel rooms, meeting rooms and offices may have had surveillance devices planted by a previous guest or tenant. This could be malicious and of an ongoing nature or forgotten about
- If you believe you are the subject of targeted of surveillance (such as by a private investigator) or attending a place you don’t wish to be associated with it’s advantageous, though not foolproof, to dress bland and unprofessional. Wearing clothes that don’t match your personality or regular wardrobe is a simple action
- Whilst it’s annoying to all others, walking with your head down engaged in your mobile phone avoids surveillance from high mounted cameras, especially as per the previous point you wear a hat or hoodie too
- Write to politicians, campaign against, and otherwise be an active participant against growing surveillance infrastructure.
For the more concerned there are of course various electronic devices you can purchase to detect the presence of surveillance equipment. We haven’t listed them as they are still quite expensive and beyond the needs of most ordinary people. However, we are aware high net worth individuals or those sensitive to surveillance purchase such devices and sweep hotel rooms, board rooms, executive meetings and other places they attend with them. Remember you don’t need to be wealthy or work with sensitive information to be targeted by malicious surveillance. People, professions, and places that can be targeted by illegally planted surveillance devices include:
- Ex partners from abusive relationships
- Ex partners or lovers from broken relationships
- People with access to sensitive information or large financial accounts
- Politicians, community leaders, and religious figures
- Individuals or businesses with ongoing litigation
- People and businesses based in the finance or legal industry
- People involved in political campaigns or with a public image where a good reputation is crucial to success (such as Real Estate Agents)
- Offices of businesses in highly competitive industries or during takeovers and mergers
- Competitors for industrial espionage
- Employers / employees / co-workers
- People with mental health conditions
The final word regarding what you can do to minimise your exposure is more about what you shouldn’t do. Ensure you don’t mount illegally facing cameras on your property which can see into your neighbour’s property for example. If you are concerned your neighbour’s cameras breach your property boundaries, speak to your neighbour first and if that doesn’t prove fruitful consult with the police or a lawyer. Do not damage, attempt to breach, or otherwise take matters into your own hands regarding surveillance infrastructure that is not yours.
The start of this article focused on state employed mass surveillance and how that has grown over the years with spikes during terrorist attacks or the current pandemic. Traditionally when we think of surveillance, we think of this, we think of the ‘big’ surveillance infrastructure. However, as we went through in the second part of this article, surveillance devices have never been clearer, cheaper, as interconnected, as accessible to the masses, or as easy to use as they are today.
This has opened the door for ordinary citizens to be able to deploy many cameras on their private property and log in to a live feed to monitor their home, pets, or people ringing their doorbell. It has created a bit of a juxtaposition in the government surveillance of public spaces most people argue is excessive is rolled out by those very people in their own private spaces. Access to this footage can easily be shared with law enforcement just as easily as a slightly above average bad actor can compromise the average domestic surveillance system. The mass availability of surveillance devices has also opened up new risks related to illegal surveillance as listed earlier. We as ordinary citizens are adding to the so-called ‘surveillance state’ by bringing more and more cameras inside the walls of our own homes, cameras which tend to be less secure than their public counterparts.
Surveillance devices have developed in capability over the decades and aren’t going away. Being aware of their increasing capability, potential for misuse, and ensuring you keep your home private (but still secured) ensures you don’t live every hour of the day under the watchful eye from above.
The next part of this series will be on Dataveillance.
(1) Comparitech: The worlds most surveilled cities: https://www.comparitech.com/vpn-privacy/the-worlds-most-surveilled-cities/
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