Surveillance and thought crimes

January 22, 2008 at 2:00 am 1 comment

You may have noticed no recent posts on privacy and surveillance issues. That’s largely because I’ve been reflecting on surveillance issues from a complexity perspective and crafting my thoughts into some semblance of an argument – expect a post soon.

But Popular Mechanics January issue ran a cover story on new high-tech video surveillance cameras. Scary to read what these new style cameras are capable of. To give you a taste: used by banks, hotels and retail stores, “searchable surveillance” systems automatically create a template of every face that passes in front of the electronic eye. It creates a mathematical model based on the geometry of each person’s face and compares to a central bank of images of known suspects. But the really scary bit I think is that this same technology can also automatically log and analyse events based on an automated object recognition analysis of an entire scene—for example, Joe Blogs met with Jane Doe at 12:45 pm; Doe arrived in a blue car. Because the cost of data storage is now much cheaper, several months’ worth of data can be analysed in minutes.

In the good old days of village life, eyes were of course everywhere and so your neighbour could lift the curtains and spy on you. But contemporary society is Government and Big Business society. It’s an era of Government and business watching us via surveillance cameras in shopping centres, on public streets and even within organisations. But surveillance is not a two-way street; we can’t easily turn the cameras back on them. I was recently in a hotel foyer taking photos of some lovely art deco features and was busted – some security dude wanted to know who, what, when and why. Fortunately, I wasn’t hauled off in handcuffs but it did get nasty for a moment!

But I think the really interesting thing about contemporary society is that we are a video-enabled population. We have camera phones, we can upload a video to YouTube in seconds. So we can turn the cameras back on government and big business and find, for example, the “don’t tase me bro” incident a huge sensation on YouTube (where University of Florida police used a taser on a student). In fact, we have more tools in our hands than those who plant surveillance cameras around us. And we have the distribution channel of YouTube. So whilst we are in the grip of the surveillance society, surveillance tools have become democraticised.

But Government and big business will fight back. Police officers for instance don’t like being snapped by a camera phone perhaps over-zealously frisking someone down or roughing someone up. Retail stores don’t like you taking footage of a security guard dealing with an alleged shoplifter. And, as I found out, hotels are a bit skittish about you taking photos of art deco windows.

In the US for example, HR1955, the Homegrown Terrorism and Violent Radicalization Prevention Act, was rushed through in late 2007. Known as the “Thought Crime Bill”, this is a dangerous piece of legislation IMHO. It’s a piece of legislation aimed at preventing home grown terrorism but its wording is so vague that if a person posts let’s say a video onto YouTube outlining their political views, that person may be inciting violence and the US government, under the legislation, may have the power to take down said video.

HR1955 is aimed at the internet and defines “homegrown terrorism” and “violent radicalization”. The first term simply means the use, planned or threatened use of violence by a US citizen based or operating within US borders; the second term is the more worrying and means “the process of adopting or promoting an extremist belief system for the purpose of facilitating ideologically based violence to advance political, religious or social change”. (You can read the full text here and check the status of the Bill).

Now the truly scary bit is that HR1955 sets up a National Commission and a network of academic researchers to define certain ideologies as ‘thoughtcrimes’ and it encompasses the concept of ‘pre-crime’. The network of academic researchers and the commission will provide the basis for identifying certain ideologies as “thought-crimes”. Forgot Orwellian, this is more Minority Report with Nazi overtones (Note to Neo-Nazis I recently dealt with – don’t bother emailing me).

You really need to be aware of HR1955. If you’re too lazy to wade your way through the hefty legal text, then check out the video on LiveLeak (just under 10 mins) or watch this idiot’s guide on YouTube:

I found this YouTube video by a young Gothic-looking woman really got to me, particularly what she has to say about her son – I sometimes feel like her, no-one listens or cares about our loss of privacy:

This is anti-freedom of speech legislation. Nazi Germany created the crime of “Volksverhetzung”, which basically meant stirring up the populace through hate mongering or mobilizing against the status quo. Volksverhetzung is simply another term for radicalization.

So whilst the average citizen has its own tools of surveillance and can indulge in sousveillance, proposed legislation like HR1955 (from my reading of it) could be used to:

  • suppress and prosecute US based groups engaged in quite legal but unpopular political activism. Who will judge it to be unpopular? The National Commission and academic researchers. So this may see groups like environmental activists (who big business would love to silence); Islamic sympathizers, anti-abortion activists and various right-wing organisations busted for “thought crimes’.
  • s899B states: “The Internet has aided in facilitating violent radicalization, ideologically based violence, and the homegrown terrorism process in the United States by providing access to broad and constant streams of terrorist-related propaganda to United States citizens”. The internet is supposed to be free of Government interference, but not for long by the looks of this section of the Bill. So you could see YouTube videos taken down for example.
  • the term “violent radicalization” is vaguely defined and leaves the door open to many interpretations. Socialism, communism, Neo-Nazis, white supremist groups could all be classified for example as extremist belief systems depending on your viewpoint. Heck, maybe even animal-liberationalists and people flinging themselves onto whale-hunting boats will be seen as extremists.
  • s899A(4) defines “ideologically based violence” and is so vaguely defined that you are left wondering what constitutes violence. Is it civil disobedience? Is it a peaceful protest rally?

I’d like to think that ThinkingShift readers are concerned about societal issues whether this be environmental or threats to our civil liberties. If I’m right and you are: do yourself a favour and become familiar with HR1955. This post is just an alert and a summary for you. Then tell me what you think of HR1955.

Image source: Popular Mechanics


Entry filed under: CCTV, Politics, Privacy, Public webcams, Surveillance society, YouTube.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. dbabbit  |  December 1, 2008 at 11:41 am

    I was watching a piece on The Real News titled “US prepares for ‘continuity of government'” that happened to mention this bill. Americans have gotten so apathetic about everything. WE have waited for far too long to do anything. Want to make a bet that our new president elect doesn’t make it into office? Hiel BushCo.


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