Guest opinion: Time to be concerned about the creep of 'big data' | October 2, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Viewpoint - October 2, 2013

Guest opinion: Time to be concerned about the creep of 'big data'

by Steve Taffee

Kudos to Menlo Park City Council members for the civil, intelligent discourse I witnessed at last week's City Council meeting as they discussed various surveillance technologies.

Each of them demonstrated a concern for the rights of law-abiding citizens embodied in the First and Fourth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, especially the rights of a free press to review law enforcement surveillance data, and the rights of law abiding citizens to go about their business in public spaces without the shadow of police surveillance over their shoulder.

The creep of "big data," so named as to remind us of Orwell's "big brother" state, permeates the lives of all citizens. It is, therefore, heartening for local authorities to resist the steamroller that technology presents and simply ask to take time out while we understand the trade-offs we are being asked to make.

Some who commented at the meeting said that increased surveillance is "what the citizens are asking for." It is more accurate to say that this is something that "some" citizens, perhaps even a relative few who take the time to show up at meetings or write to council members, are asking for this. Most citizens are likely oblivious or have not fully considered the issue. I suspect that many may be more interested in crime prevention than catching criminals after the fact.

It was not made clear in the presentations from NCRIC (Northern California Regional Intelligence Center) or the Menlo Park Police Department that if and when the city submits its data to NCRIC if it will end up co-mingled with the data of other jurisdictions. In other words, if a search is made for license plate number HMS-007, the program searches a large database consisting of all of the data rather than a search through Menlo Park, then Redwood City, then San Francisco, etc. (This is based on what I heard at the Menlo Park Police Department Advisory Committee meeting, although the technical details were vague.

One idea that was not floated is the possibility of Menlo Park police using license plate readers, but not sharing it with NCRIC. Keep the data local during a trial period of time and see how we use it and its impact on crime.

As was stated at the meeting, no system is hacker proof and those connected to the Internet even less secure. Despite NCRIC's assurances that their system is very secure, recent news events suggests that the NSA would have little problem accessing it. I'm pleased that NCRIC is audited periodically, but it might be valuable for their systems and for those of the city to contract with a "white hat" security firm that specializes in finding vulnerabilities in systems to see how they withstand attacks.

The type of surveillance systems being considered are great investigative tools. Their effect on crime prevention comes indirectly when evidence leads to arrest and conviction. If I was a criminal, and concerned about license plate reader systems, I think I would simply steal a bunch of license plates or invest in ways to obscure license plates. I hear mud works.

Finally, claims were made that the system will not include any personally identifiable information. This may be factually correct, but it ignores how technology can be leveraged so that as few as four geospatial data points can predict with extreme accuracy who someone is. See the article in Nature that is linked to from this posting in the Electronic Frontier

Foundation'a website:

Again, I applaud City Council members for their work on this important issue. I am hopeful that the city will lead the way in creating model policies for the region and the nation.

Steve Taffee is a member of the Menlo Park Police Department's citizens advistory committee


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