Commentary

Billboard Surveillance Is Not the Issue, The Feds Are

Since its publication in The New York Times two weeks ago, an article titled "Billboards That Look Back" caused a tempest in the media teapot. It described the high-tech billboards created by TruMedia Technologies that scan the faces of passers-by to determine how many looked at the ads. The billboards quickly became a lightning rod for both conspiracy theorists and sober guardians of civil liberties, who portrayed it as another step toward an Orwellian surveillance society.

Attempting to quell the storm of negative P.R., TruMedia Technologies sent a letter to the Times reiterating two points that had already been made in the article. First, the company doesn't record any individual identifying data collected by its billboards. Second, it would never share the data with the government or outside organizations.

These claims seem sincere but -- like the technology's critics -- they don't address the real issue, which is much broader, concerning basic problems of American government and society.

It's easy to see why the billboards stirred controversy. In addition to tracking responses, the technology allows TruMedia Technologies to determine the race and gender of individuals, then select advertising that target them most effectively. The technology itself was developed by Israeli security forces. The facial-recognition technology not only scans and records the facial characteristics of pedestrians, but matches them against a database of known or suspected terrorists at a rate of about 100,000 faces per second. Of course, Israel uses it to identify terrorists, not discover possible ad targets.

So is the reaction justified?

Just because the displays don't currently allow them to record identifying data doesn't mean they can't be modified to do so in future, according to Tomer Dadon, the founder of Csystems Israel Advanced Biometrics, based in Haifa (where TruMedia also has an R&D lab). Further, TruMedia (or some comparable billboard owner) wouldn't even have to create a memory bank to record the data itself. To make the surveillance almost untraceable, they would simply have to stream the data to a government agency, which could keep a permanent record, while also conducting more intrusive analysis.

This kind of cooperation is all too plausible, especially after revelations that big telecoms colluded with the NSA in warrantless wiretapping at the behest of the Bush Administration. While TruMedia may be sincere now, the record of AT&T and Verizon suggests that companies may not stand up to pressure from the executive branch -- especially in the ostensible cause of national security.

But taking the other side, could two-way billboards really serve as the lynchpin of tyranny? Sure, they could play a part in repression, once the totalitarian nightmare really gets rolling, but there's a far more logical starting point for a regime run amok: the security cameras. They're everywhere. A good proportion of the security cameras in the U.S. are already operated by the Feds, including surveillance of post offices, courthouses and interstates. An even larger proportion is operated by state and municipal authorities, which also focus on traffic and building security. It's easy to imagine businesses like banks, stores, fast-food chains and office buildings giving the powers that be access to their surveillance systems for the good of the nation.

At all three levels -- federal, local and private -- existing surveillance systems could be augmented to include facial recognition technology at minimal expense. "This is easy," according to Dadon, who said it's possible to "connect to every video source, starting from normal cameras, police cameras or any other device just by connecting two wires into the camera."

In short, billboards are not the real issue; the real issue is democracy. Will Americans assent to wider use of facial-recognition technology by government agencies and private companies? Will we even be consulted? In the absence of real public debate and controversy, it's likely that the government will simply move ahead with implementation, taking our complacency as consent.

Dadon summed it up with a wry pun: "I would say these developments are irreversible, and we will all face them in the near future."

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