Big Brother Gets a Brain
by Noah Shachtman
July 9 - 15, 2003
Illustration by Richard Borge
he cameras are already in place. The computer code is being developed at a dozen or more major companies and universities. And the trial runs have already been planned.
Everything is set for a new Pentagon program to become perhaps the federal government's widest reaching, most invasive mechanism yet for keeping us all under watch. Not in the far-off, dystopian future. But here, and soon.
The military is scheduled to issue contracts for Combat Zones That See, or CTS, as early as September. The first demonstration should take place before next summer, according to a spokesperson. Approach a checkpoint at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, during the test and CTS will spot you. Turn the wheel on this sprawling, 8,656-acre army encampment, and CTS will record your action. Your face and license plate will likely be matched to those on terrorist watch lists. Make a move considered suspicious, and CTS will instantly report you to the authorities.
Fort Belvoir is only the beginning for CTS. Its architects at the Pentagon say it will help protect our troops in cities like Baghdad, where for the past few weeks fleeting attackers have been picking off American fighters in ones and twos. But defense experts believe the surveillance effort has a second, more sinister, purpose: to keep entire cities under an omnipresent, unblinking eye.
This isn't some science fiction nightmare. Far from it. CTS depends on parts you could get, in a pinch, at Kmart.
"There's almost a 100 percent chance that it will work," said Jim Lewis, who heads the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "because it's just connecting things that already exist."
As currently configured, the old-line cameras speckled throughout every major city aren't that much of a privacy concern. Yes, there are lenses everywhere—several thousand just in Manhattan. But they see so much, it's almost impossible for snoops to sift through all the footage and find what's important.
CTS would coordinate the cameras, gathering their views in a single information storehouse. The goal, according to a recent Pentagon presentation to defense contractors, is to "track everything that moves."
"This gives the U.S. government capabilities Big Brother only pretended to have," said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a defense think tank. "Before, we said Big Brother's watching. But he really wasn't, because there was too much to watch."
CTS could help soldiers spot dangers as they navigate perilous urban areas, Pentagon researchers insist. That's not how defense analysts like Pike see it. The program "seems to have more to do with domestic surveillance than a foreign battlefield," he said, "and more to do with the Department of Homeland Security than the Department of Defense."
"Right now, this may be a military program," added Lewis. "But when it gets up and running, there's going to be a huge temptation to apply it to policing at home"—to keep tabs on ordinary citizens, whether or not they've done something wrong.
Traditionally, the authorities have collected information only on people who might be connected to a crime. If there was a murder in the East Village, the cops didn't bring in all of St. Mark's Place; they interrogated only the people who might have information about the killer. Even the most extreme abuses of law enforcement power—like J. Edgar Hoover's domestic spying on political activists—homed in on very specific individuals, or groups, that he imagined as threats to the state. He didn't put the whole state under watch.
September 11 changed that. Now, the idea is to find out as much as possible about as many people as possible. After all, the logic goes, the country can't afford to sit back and wait to be attacked. Almost anyone could play a part in a terrorist plot. So the government has to keep tabs on almost everyone.
CTS, a $12 million, three-year program, is emerging as a potential centerpiece of that initiative.
"Before, it was 'let's catch the bad guys and bring them to trial after stuff happens,' " Lewis said. "Now it's 'let's look for patterns and stop [an attack] before it happens.' "
That's why Attorney General John Ashcroft pushed for a program to turn a million civilians into citizen-spies, snooping on their neighbors. That's why the USA Patriot Act now allows for wiretaps without warrants. And it's why the Pentagon has begun researching an array of high-tech tools to pry into average people's lives.
CTS is the brainchild of DARPA, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. That's the group of minds behind the notoriously invasive Total (sorry, "Terrorism") Information Awareness über-database. TIA's backers say the project will be carefully targeted, but privacy advocates say it could compile in a single place an unprecedented amount of information about you—your school transcripts, medical records, credit card bills, e-mail, and so much more.
"LifeLog," currently in the early planning stage at DARPA, would twist all these bits into narrative "threads," giving officials a chance to watch events develop. Along the way, LifeLog's developers would like to capture the name of every TV show you watch, every magazine you read.
Still, watching your data trail just isn't the same as actually watching your physical tail. You can change your e-mail address, and start paying cash. But you can't run away from yourself. And that's the missing piece CTS could provide—an almost instant ability to track, moment by moment, where you are and what you're doing.
"Before, there was a reasonable expectation of privacy when you were walking down the street," Lewis said. "Now that's something that will have to be adjusted."
That's not all that will change. As everybody who's ever mugged for the camera knows, people act differently when they're being watched.
Sometimes, that's not such a bad thing. Web-surfing habits are monitored on the job, so you wait until you're home to download porn. On the street, you can be a little less skittish, knowing your neighbors, your beat cops, your corner store owners are keeping an eye on you.
But being watched by a faceless, inaccessible government minder, that's something altogether different.
In 1791, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed a jail, circular in shape. The warden would sit in a dark observation booth in the middle; the prisoners would sit in well-lit, inward-facing cells along the circumference. Under the constant threat of being watched, the jailed would change their behavior, Bentham theorized, bending their activities to the warden's rules.
Two centuries later, England has 2.5 million security cameras spread throughout the country, by some estimates. Several cities, like the port town of King's Lynn, are covered by the lenses.
"It's exactly what Bentham predicted," said Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, a British civil liberties group. "The kids there are giving up going onto the street. They say it's almost like being in a glass-paneled room, with their parents on the other side. They're forced into smaller and smaller areas so they can be kids in private."
Putting people under electronic watch induces a kind of split personality, said Bill Brown, who leads tours of Manhattan's spy cams as part of his duties with the Surveillance Camera Players. The authorities want people to obey the law, to behave rationally. But video surveillance does the exact opposite. It makes people feel—correctly—like they're constantly being watched, like they're paranoid.
"And that's not a rational state at all," Brown said. "It's a mental condition."
Stalin and Saddam did their best. They tried hard to keep under surveillance as many of their citizens as they could. But these efforts could never succeed completely. There was always a "fundamental barrier—the ratio of watchers to the watched," said John Pike of Globalsecurity.org.
"You couldn't have everybody working for the secret police," he continued. "The thing that's so singularly seductive about automatic video surveillance is that it breaks that fundamental barrier down."
CTS will keep watch by equipping each camera with a processor, like the one in your computer. The chips will have programmed into them "video understanding algorithms" that can distinguish one car from another. At each checkpoint, the car's speed, time of arrival, color, size, license plate, and shape are all instantly passed on to a central server. If the early tests identifying cars go well, software that recognizes a person's face and style of walk could also be added.
By sharing only this refined data—instead of the raw video itself—CTS should keep fragile computer networks from becoming overloaded with hours and hours of meaningless footage. Everybody knows how much of a pain it can be to get a video clip in your e-mail inbox, instead of a simple text message. Now imagine how much worse the problem would get if thousands and thousands of such clips were being sent back and forth, all day, every day. CTS would help government networks avoid that burden, with each camera transmitting a mere 8 kilobits per second, instead of the 200 or so kilobits needed for high-resolution video.
CTS would also keep the snoops who stare at the monitors from being overwhelmed. "We have enough cameras, but not enough people to watch the video feeds," said Tom Strat, who's heading up CTS for DARPA's Information Exploitation Office.
If all's well, CTS cameras might send back to headquarters only basic data or the occasional low-resolution image. But when there's something fishy going down—like a car speeding away unexpectedly, or a briefcase left in a train station—the images could come sharper, and more quickly. Proto-CTS programs from contractors Northrop Grumman and the Sarnoff Corporation would interrupt the gray monotony of surveillance footage, setting red boxes aflash around the suspect person or object.
"It focuses your attention right there," said Bruce De Witte of Northrop.
But CTS would do more than change what investigators see. It would also give them a record of everything that happens in a city's public places, potential evidence for prosecutors and terrorist hunters.
In its presentation to industry, DARPA said it wanted CTS to be able to find the common threads between a shooting at a bus stop one month and a bombing at a disco the next.
In theory, CTS could take an inventory of all of the cars around the bus stop and near the disco immediately before and after the incidents. Then it could examine where those cars went, to see if there were any vehicles in common—or if a car acted as a sort of messenger between two others.
The forensic process could be further enhanced by one of DARPA's analysis programs, like LifeLog or Total Information Awareness. After mining license plate numbers from the footage, investigators could identify the car owners. And then dig into the owners' Web-surfing trails, to see if there were any visits to explosive-making sites. And scan e-mail accounts for virulent language. And plumb credit card receipts for big fertilizer purchases.
To the uninitiated, storing and sharing all this information might seem like insurmountably complex tasks. And according to Strat, the CTS manager, the ability to network surveillance cameras over a wide area is "not right around the corner."
Defense and technology analysts have a different view.
"(CTS) is pretty creepy. And the creepiest part about it is that it's not all that sophisticated," said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with the privacy-rights proponent Electronic Frontier Foundation.
DARPA has mandated that the CTS demonstrations be done only with readily available, "off the shelf" equipment—the kind of stuff you could get at Spyville.com. You could find slightly less diesel versions of the gear at Amazon.com.
So getting the cameras will be easy. What may be harder is handing off information—a description of a suspicious vehicle, say—from one camera to the next. These lenses will be separated by hundreds, even thousands, of meters. And "appearances can change dramatically" in those distances, Johns Hopkins University senior research scientist Chris Diehl said. Slight variations in light or in the camera's angle can make a car look very different to a mechanical eye. "If you read the literature, there really isn't a proven method" for solving this problem, he said.
Yet this obstacle seems surmountable. In a CTS simulation conducted by software developer Alphatech, a car could be tracked over 10 kilometers with accuracy of 90 percent or better with cameras placed 400 meters apart. The percentage went up, of course, as the cameras moved closer together.
CTS is but one of an array of private and public sector programs to sort through the ever expanding amount of surveillance imagery. University of California at San Diego's Computer Vision and Robotics Research lab just received a $600,000 grant from a Defense Department counterterror group for a CTS-like project. At Los Alamos National Laboratory, Stephen Brumby is using genetic algorithms—programs that are bred from smaller components of code—to automatically analyze satellite pictures.
At the Sarnoff Corporation, a project dubbed Video Flashlight would morph cameras' views into a single three-dimensional model. Using a joystick, a security officer could maneuver through this simulated world as though playing a game of Half Life or Grand Theft Auto.
In order for Video Flashlight to work, however, it would have to use stationary cameras. CTS doesn't have that limitation; it's supposed to function with drones and other battlefield sensors. That's one of the reasons Globalsecurity.org's John Pike thinks the program could have a legitimate military function—"to the extent that it is relevant to urban operations, as opposed to the running of a well-oiled police state."
Combat in cities "tends to quickly degenerate into small firefights," Pike explained. It's a lot harder to know what's happening in a crowded city than it is in an open desert. Radios cut out quicker; drones and satellites have a harder time peering through the concrete canyons and narrow passageways of urban life. CTS could restore some of that sight, giving U.S. generals a "broader situational awareness."
This assumes, of course, that CTS has anything to do with urban combat. If it does, it'd be a surprise to some of the businesses bidding for the CTS contract.
"The primary application is for homeland security," said Tom Lento, a spokesman for the Sarnoff Corporation.
"The whole theme here is homeland security," added Northrop Grumman's De Witte.
Strat disagreed. "DARPA's mission is not to do homeland security," he said.
In a presentation to industry, DARPA noted, "CTS technology will be demonstrated only within the observable boundaries of government installations where video surveillance is expressly permitted, and operational deployment areas outside the United States where it is consistent with all local laws."
But in an interview, Strat did admit that "there's a chance that some of this technology might work its way" into domestic surveillance programs.
In the test at Fort Belvoir this year the aim is to track 90 percent of all of cars within the target area for any given 30-minute period. The paths of 1 million vehicles should be stored and retrievable within three seconds. A year after that, CTS is supposed to move on to testing in an urban combat setting, where it will gather information from 100 mobile sensors, like drone spy planes and "video ropes" containing dozens of tiny cameras.
Shortly thereafter, CTS could be keeping tabs on a city near you.
"This is coming whether we like it or not," said Jim Lewis, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's not how do we stop the tidal wave. It's how do we manage it."
Noah Shachtman edits the blog http://www.defensetech.org/.
Read more of the Voice's coverage of the attack on civil liberties in post-September 11 America.
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