Much has been made about how smart technologies from our smart homes to our smart watches to our smart cars to our smart cities will revolutionize how society functions. The cyber vulnerabilities of those technologies have received growing attention, but far less has been discussed about the myriad ways in which law enforcement is increasingly turning to such technologies to turn the devices we pay for into surveillance tools of the government.
When we think of technology surveilling us today, we typically talk about social media and other Web platforms tracking us as we go about our digital lives. Yet the increasingly long reach of the digital world into the physical one means we can simply no longer escape surveillance and profiling.
Historically these profiles were used by private companies to manipulate, mine and monetize us. Increasingly, however, the future of such behavioral and interest profiling will lie in the use of all of this data by governments to police us.
China is the country that today most readily comes to mind in discussions of governmental repurposing of the digital world for surveillance. Yet it is the US where the true future of such surveillance is being pioneered.
Vehicles are beginning to incorporate “distracted driver” technology to monitor the state of the driver and their passengers. These range from simple steering wheel monitors to more sophisticated prototypes that involve cabin cameras and microphones monitoring the state of the driver and all passengers, looking for everything from a drowsy driver to arguing backseat children.
Today these vehicular enhancements are designed to warn drivers to be more alert but some insurance companies are already offering discounts to drivers willing to plug a monitoring device into their vehicle to monitor their driving behavior.
As these technologies evolve it is almost a given that they will become mandatory, with insurance companies automatically raising the rates for those with argumentative children in the backseat compared with those whose children sit quietly.
More insidiously, once cars are able to automatically detect distracted driving, especially illegal activities like texting or other phone use in motion, it will be only a matter of time until cars automatically notify law enforcement. Why position police along roadways to monitor driver behavior when every car on the road will automatically issue its driver a ticket for everything from cell phone use to speeding to aggressive driving?
Cars already record a tremendous amount of information in their onboard storage, with law enforcement taking an increasing interest in the ability to access everything from built-in dashcam footage to contact lists and other data saved from synced cell phones.
Similarly, insurance companies have begun exploring using records from data brokers to monitor their customers in real-time, flagging those that are not complying with their prescribed treatment regimens or those who have a particular proclivity for unhealthy foods. There have already been public conversations about the right of companies and their insurers to cancel company-provided health insurance for employees that don’t adhere to the corporate health mantra.
It would not be hard for companies to extend this further, setting corporate policies around the consumption of everything from alcohol to meat and firing employees that violate those policies on their personal time, such as having a drink with friends on a Saturday night if their company disagrees with the notion of alcohol consumption.
Companies searching for ways to catch leakers and preempt inappropriate workplace behavior or even violence could easily turn to any number of datasets to monitor their employees away from work to understand the kinds of activities they engage in and places they visit. What happens when companies begin to red-flag any employee that visits a shooting range or visits a mental health counselor?
Most importantly, should companies be allowed to automatically flag any employee that visits a counselor or psychiatrist of any kind and place them on special watchlists for security scrutiny on the off-chance they might become violent or engage in harassing or other unwanted activities on the job? Even if companies are banned from doing so directly, what happens when third party data brokers construct attributes like “potentially dangerous employee” that incorporates these kinds of metrics?
Facebook already uses its mobile app to track blacklisted users that stray too close to one of their physical facilities, so the technology to geographically profile employees is already here.
Soon smart refrigerators will rat their owners out to their health insurers for bringing home a slice of pizza, while their smart microwaves and stoves might notify child services that the household’s children are being fed processed foods like hot dogs and frozen dinners instead of fresh vegetables.
Smart water meters will name and shame those who take long showers and automatically turn off the water to encourage shorter showers, while smart power meters will refuse to allow the lights to remain on in unoccupied rooms or hair dryer use of more than 60 seconds.
There is already talk of smart home doorbell cameras being made accessible to law enforcement, initially to augment city dragnets, but ultimately law enforcement would love the idea of being able to observe our movements and who enters and leaves our homes with us.
Such is our brave new “smart” future.
Putting this all together, as our devices become more intelligent and more Web-connected their commercial surveillance will turn to governmental surveillance.
These are far from far-fetched idle musings of an impossible future.
Facebook is already prototyping the idea of our phones proactively filtering the messages we send and receive, with algorithms that would block us from sending content it disagreed with and which could alert Facebook and eventually authorities to transgressions.
In the end, the Thought Police are already here and we are the ones paying for the privilege of their monitoring.