It is not long ago when tapping someone’s phone call used to sound like an act of extraordinary skills. Most of the times, it were law enforcement agencies tapping phone calls to watch over people and their motives. It was a trustworthy method to put people on surveillance radar and gather intelligence. But now, in just a couple of decades, surveillance methods have reached at an unimaginable level. Now phone tapping will probably sound like an insult to someone engaged in intelligence gathering. Technology has given security agencies the ability to do way more than just tapping calls or hacking e-mails. Now they can track every movement and hack most form of communication. They can watch you over with satellite imaginary, heat map, facial recognition and gait analysis.
In this article we will try to dig deeper the efforts of mass surveillance across the globe and how nations are actively taking up facial recognition route to implement these projects.
Why governments need mass surveillance?
Security is often the most common reason cited for running mass surveillance programs. Governments try to justify the efforts put in mass surveillance in the name of nation security, to fight against terrorisms, to encounter social unrest, etc. Now when the governments are looking for security in surveillance, they are putting a lot of efforts and money to automate the job with the help of technology. The intrusion of technology has taken surveillance beyond imaginations. There is a good reason why Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and even FBI director James Comey, cover their laptops webcam. And it is not about hackers, National Security Agency of your own country may spy through your webcam.
Unfortunately, even in democratic nations, governments have absolute power and nobody to watch over in most cases. In the disclosures made by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013, the US government was found running several mass surveillance programs to watch over its own citizens. Despite the media and privacy outcry, nothing actually happened. After these revelations, people started suspecting everything: government agencies, gadgets they use and data they share. Such fears, however, are not unfounded. Governments can reach an agreement with technology firms to put a backdoor in devices that are used by billions of people across the world.
What if you come to know that your favourite phone brand has a backdoor and can be controlled remotely by a government security agency? Good news is that real world examples have been contrary so far. In such a popular case, Apple refused to assist FBI in unlocking the smartphone found at San Bernardino attack.
Major mass surveillance efforts across the globe
Many developed countries have been using technological means to surveil domestic and international targets. This surveillance and intelligence gathering do not take place using a single approach. Governments use multiple technological means to do the job, which also require huge budget and resources. Budget is never officially revealed in most cases.
United States is the first country that comes to mind when it comes to mass surveillance. The country is known to have the number of global surveillance programs more than any other nation, thanks to disclosures made by former CIA employee Edward Snowden. The US government mass surveillance efforts have been criticised for being too invasive in nature. Security and intelligence agencies like CIA, NSA, and many other under-cover organizations are given enormous power by the government to run such programs. Attacks of 9/11 became the turning point for United States’ mass surveillance and security programs and the government started pushing them so hard that they crossed the constitutional boundaries and privacy rights of its citizens.
From terrorist organizations to criminals and even law abiding citizens, everyone came under the radar of mass surveillance. Having the home grown technological advantage, the country used all possible means to surveil people within the national boundaries and beyond. Data collection out of people’s online activities, phone calls, mobile phone location tracking, monitoring of financial payments, satellite surveillance, heat maps, and whatnot. Biometric recognition methods like speech and speaker recognition to scan mobile networks, facial recognition, etc. are also extensively used by the country for both domestic as well as international mass surveillance programs.
British intelligence agency GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) is responsible for intelligence gathering and running mass surveillance programs in the country. Being one of the Five Eyes members, the United Kingdom has advantage of technology sharing from other nations of the alliance, including the United States. The country has pioneered in code breaking and signal intelligence during the World War II and now enjoys technological assistance from powerful allies. The UK is has been closely associated with the US in many mass surveillance programs including the infamous PRISM. The country itself has been running various surveillance programs like Karma Police, Tempora, etc. The British law enforcement agencies hold 5.5 million fingerprints and more than 3.4 million DNA samples on the Nation DNA Database.
The UK has large numbers of CCTV cameras installed at public and private facilities, however, most of them are owned privately. So far, there has been no evidence that these surveillance cameras are being used for mass surveillance. The government is yet to widely implement facial recognition for security and mass surveillance.
Australian Signal Directorate (ASD), which is a foreign intelligence collection agency under the government of Australia, is known to run mass surveillance programs and share data with other Five Eye member states. The ASD is known to have many secret surveillance facilities in Southeast Asia. The government is also leveraging facial recognition for security and mass surveillance. A report published by CNN suggested that Australian government will be using citizen’s driver’s license photos to create a nationwide facial recognition database. The Australian government seeks to target terrorism with facial recognition.
Being one of the Five Eye states, Canadian government has extensive prowess of mass surveillance technology. Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), the national cryptologic agency of the Canadian government is responsible for protecting government’s communication networks and signal intelligence. Intelligence collection and assessment capabilities are centralized by Canadian Forces Intelligence Command. Edward Snowden revealed that CSEC have been running mass surveillance projects for domestic as well as international levels.
Being comparatively a peaceful nation, New Zealand never does not have much history of running mass surveillance programs. However, being one of the Five Eye nations, it has to gather and share intelligence with other members of the alliance. Being infamous for its disclosures, the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden alleged New Zealand government to cover up mass surveillance in the country. He also revealed two NSA sites in the country engaged in mass surveillance programs back in September 2014, the New Zealand government, however, never admitted it.
This is where it gets dirty! China is taking the biometric facial recognition route to implement mass surveillance network across the nation. The country is on its way to build world’s largest camera surveillance network. It has already installed more than 170 million surveillance cameras across the country, which is set to grow more than threefold with 400 million more set to be installed by 2020. These surveillance cameras will be connected with each other and leverage AI to identify and locate a subject under surveillance within a matter of minutes. In a drill in 2017, it took mere seven minutes to identify and locate a BBC reporter who volunteered to test China’s facial recognition mass surveillance system’s ability.
Countries with huge potential to implement biometric mass surveillance
There are countries including emerging economies which have not yet admitted running any organized mass surveillance program, however they have collected huge amount of biometric data of its citizens in the name of national ID or other benefits. Experts tell that this data can be used to surveil people.
When it comes to biometric mass surveillance, India cannot be omitted. This country is on its way to establish a biometric national ID database of its more than 1.35 billion citizens. The program is nearing its goal as the country has enrolled more than 99% of total population in the national biometric database called “Aadhar”. Experts had already expressed their concerns on this overly ambitious project and security of biometric data. There have been several incidents of data leaks, in which personal details of enrollees were leaked; it did not contain any biometric data, however. Unfortunately, there is no law in Indian constitution that protects its citizens’ privacy and country can leverage biometric data of its citizens to surveil them. If it happens, it will become the world’s largest biometric surveillance program.
Argentina is expected to be one of the countries in which biometric civil identity is under the implementation stage and can be used for mass surveillance purposes. All citizens have to obtain government mandated ID which requires them to provide their biometric identifiers like fingerprints and facial geometry. The biometric data captured in the name of national ID is highly subjected to mass surveillance as it contains facial biometrics as well. Privacy advocates express their concern that government may use fingerprint and facial biometric data for mass surveillance. Security agencies can easily use this data for watching over people using public surveillance cameras which are now everywhere.
Facial recognition is just perfect for biometric mass surveillance and security
Facial recognition is increasingly becoming choice of identify authentication as it offers multiple benefits. Face is the natural way of human to human recognition. Facial features are unique in most cases and can be captured remotely using modern high resolution cameras that have ability to take clear shot from a considerable distance. Facial features of an individual remain exposed unlike other biometric identifiers. Modern facial recognition systems are able to recognize subjects with or without facial hair or with other temporary cosmetic changes. People keep taking digital photos so they do not have any immediate privacy concerns when it comes to facial scan, which is also done with the digital camera looking device, but may have additional ability scan a 3D map of the face. Owing to these benefits, facial recognition is becoming a preferred method for both identity authentication as well as mass surveillance.
Facial recognition produces more accurate and comprehensive results than other biometric methods when it comes to mass surveillance. These methods, however, can always be used concurrently to produce more precise results. Surveillance cameras are now everywhere, so there is no need for special equipments or setup except back-end facial recognition ability that takes feed from these cameras. Mobile devices are also increasingly adding facial recognition ability for unlocking phones or authenticating identity in transactions.
Facial recognition at airports is being used in implementing biometric smart gates around the world that automate passenger processing by securely verifying her/his identity and documents. Some airports are also using other biometrics like iris and fingerprints for the purpose. It is set to change air travel experience by making it securer as well as more efficient. Facial recognition pilots are also running at several airports in the United States, in which a passenger leaving the country has to go through a facial scan. This CBP program is known as Biometric Exit. Many banks and financial services companies are also using facial recognition to authenticate identity of the customers and enabling them to perform mobile transactions.
Mass surveillance has become a necessity for the countries across the globe and they are investing heavily to gather intelligence and ensure security. Terrorism, social unrest, national security, etc. are often the reasons cited in favour of mass surveillance. Mass surveillance puts individual privacy at stake and a never ending debate of privacy vs. security emerges whenever it comes to mass surveillance programs. Despite the privacy advocate and media outcry, governments do not seem to compromise with security and major economies like the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and China are increasingly implementing mass surveillance programs. Developing countries like India, Argentina, etc. are also expected to put similar efforts as they have biometric data of their citizens out of their national ID programs.
Facial biometric is increasingly getting attention of security and surveillance experts. There are substantial reasons why facial recognition is taking the center stage of biometric mass surveillance. Facial features can be captured from a distance without the subject’s knowledge and consent. It is easy to implement and can be done using public surveillance cameras, which are now everywhere. Mass surveillance has always been a debateable topic due to privacy invasion. There may be privacy concerns, but do we really have a choice? Would you choose a brutal terrorist attack over privacy concerns?