Some of the Wikileaks-fueled swirl of stories about the TrapWire program appear to have been overhyped, as my colleague Kade Crockford of the ACLU of Massachusetts noted in her excellent roundup of the story yesterday. Others writing about the program have followed suit.
But let’s not overcompensate for the hype and get too world-weary and cynical here; while many questions remain about this program, it does raise some very significant issues. And it does deserve a high level of attention and concern.
We do know the program combines several elements that are each deeply problematic:
But I think the most novel issue raised by TrapWire is the program’s video surveillance component. It’s not entirely clear how the program is using video. A 2010 Stratfor email leaked by Wikileaks states the following:
This week, 500 surveillance cameras were activated on the NYC subway system to focus on pre-operational terrorist surveillance. The surveillance technology is also operational on high-value targets (HVTs) in DC, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and London and is called TrapWire. . . . Operationally, the ability to identify hostile surveillance at one target set -- in multiple cities -- can be used to neutralize terror threats by interrupting the attack cycle. Meaning, a suspect conducting surveillance of the NYC subway can also be spotted by TrapWire conducting similar activity at the DC subway, connecting the infamous dots. An additional benefit of TrapWire is that the system can also be used to help "walk back the cat" after an attack to identify terrorist suspects and modus operandi. I can also see the tool being very effective in identifying general street crime.
That certainly makes it sound that video feeds from a wide variety of locations are being centrally scrutinized for “hostile” behavior, cross-referenced, and stored (to allow the post-attack investigation). If it’s claimed that the system can recognize that the same individual has appeared in different cities, it is a rational assumption that face recognition is employed, despite that technology’s generally abysmal performance in uncontrolled situations such as public spaces.
In addition, a TrapWire trademark document says the system provides a visual monitor that shows “the threat level at each facility” and highlights those where the threat level has risen “over the preceding 24 hours.” What kind of data would be used to indicate a higher threat at a given facility on an hour-by-hour basis? Such up-to-date evaluations seem like the kind of thing that would be based on video feeds.
But it is still not clear what is going on. The Stratfor descriptions aren’t necessarily accurate. As this piece by independent journalist Ben Doernberg points out, TrapWire’s CEO denied using face recognition in 2006. Also, the New York Times quotes a police spokesperson as denying that the NYPD uses TrapWire. (Which is strange, as Kade points out today, because Trapwire explicitly states on its web site that it services New York’s SARs. Overall the company itself has been strangely quiet during the uproar; if so many of the stories about this program are false, and it is not something we should worry about, it’s natural to wonder why the company hasn’t put out a statement explaining why that is so.)
What seems most likely is that “behavioral recognition” software monitors customers’ video feeds (such as subway cameras) and when it detects suspicious activity, it alerts human operators who then create a suspicious activity report.
Ultimately, we need to look beyond the details of what TrapWire does and does not do at this moment. We know that the following is true:
Together, these elements are a recipe for a new kind of total surveillance that people are rightly worried about. Beyond the details, all the "hype" online over the TrapWire story is a reflection and implicit recognition that such a system is now technologically possible, and we are barreling full speed toward a surveillance society. Whatever the details of TrapWire’s current operation are, we need to grapple with that fact. That’s the biggest takeaway from the TrapWire story.