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Outsourcing the surveillance state
March 5, 2014 8:31 AM   Subscribe

A vast hidden surveillance network runs across America, powered by the repo industry
posted by shothotbot (46 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Somebody repo'd the page, all I'm getting is a big blank white nothing.
posted by symbioid at 8:31 AM on March 5


I thought we already knew there was a vast hidden surveillance network? Or is this the one watching the other vast surveillance network?

I'm confused.

I wonder if there are infinite numbers of databases all conflicting with each other?
posted by infini at 8:33 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


Getting a blank page, too.
This seems to be a similar-sounding story. Unfortunately, it's just a teaser and you need to be a paying subscriber to read the full article. BostonFail.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:37 AM on March 5


Interesting, I wonder how easy it is to spot the spotter cars. That gadget seems like it's large, but could possibly be hidden in a pizza-delivery sign or similar.
posted by dabitch at 8:38 AM on March 5


I'm using Chrome and get a page to read just fine.
posted by dabitch at 8:39 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


Wayback
posted by stbalbach at 8:41 AM on March 5


Link is working now.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:42 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


I was able to read the story and it is really quite interesting.

I feel like everything is getting rigged against the people. But I have to wonder, when will society wake up and say "Yeah, everyone is a human, we all do human stuff, so acting like the baseline bar is set at some weird protestant-work-ethic, picket fence, howdy officer, good-old-days behavior and performance standard is ridiculous.

Probably 90% of the people I see every day who own cellphones have looked at porn in the past week. Polite means not talking about it, but stupid means thinking it doesn't happen and is therefore grounds for dismissal.
posted by rebent at 8:43 AM on March 5 [8 favorites]


I did some work with the consumer loan servicing industry a few years back, which necessarily involves repossessions. The license plate scanners had just started to become available at that point.

The way the system was explained to me was different than what's in the article. In the article, they're scanning plates and sending everything to some creeptastic company in Texas that keeps it forever, sells it, etc. The way it was described to me in its initial incarnation, the truck driving around with the license plate reader would be pre-loaded with a "hit list" of cars eligible for repossession. The list wasn't national, but rather regional, produced through a cooperative arrangement between the big loan servicers in that area (basically just a concatenation of the lists they would have traditionally provided to repo operators). The trucks with the cameras drive around until they get a "hit" off of the list, and then they have to manually verify the VIN (because people can switch plates, obviously), and if the VIN checks out, they can tow the car.

I guess it's probably the ease of getting a persistent mobile data connection that has caused them to start keeping everything and sending it back to the mothership, rather than preload the list (which is only a few hundred kB) in the trucks at the beginning of the day and letting them do their thing independently. But I think there's a big difference in effect and overall creepiness in the two approaches. The system that I saw didn't create (or at least appear to create) any permanent records for non-target vehicles/plates. It took each plate, compared it to the list, and if it didn't match the list it ignored it — on to the next one.

That struck me as not especially intrusive. In some ways it's better than how the repo industry traditionally works, which involves paying a skiptracer to scout out your house, office, girlfriend's place, etc. to figure out where you've stashed the car, and then rolling up in the middle of the night to snatch it out of your driveway.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:46 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]


There's a picture of one of the gadgets on this page. The external piece doesn't look much bigger than a cigar box.
posted by jquinby at 8:49 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


Whoa.
posted by latkes at 8:49 AM on March 5


I don't understand what this has to do with Worf.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:53 AM on March 5 [24 favorites]


From jquinby's link:
Sometimes they misread a plate. DRN's software makes up for some of this by registering more than one possibility for a plate if a number or letter isn't definitive. For instance a "€œB"€ and an "€œ8"€ can look very similar, particularly if shot at an angle. So the software will record both as possibilities.
i.e. the data is unreliable. Fine for repo work since they can quickly go back and verify manually if it's correct and nab the car. But unclear how useful it would be for tracking people.
posted by stbalbach at 8:56 AM on March 5


Are their any laws on the books that prohibit covering, removing, or otherwise obscuring your license plates while the vehicle is not in use? If not, it seems like there's an untapped market for license plate cozies.

The external piece doesn't look much bigger than a cigar box.

That thing is ludicrously gigantic. It's 2014, ffs.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:01 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


Man, this is creepy as hell. At least with the police there's some sort of oversight. I can't imagine a worse group of people than debt collectors and skiptracers to possess a huge database of personal location data.
posted by Ham Snadwich at 9:01 AM on March 5 [5 favorites]


Scan and store everything. Never know when it'll be valuable.

If you've got a shop on a busy street, it might be worthwhile for the license plate location aggregation company to provide you with a free/subsidized security camera system - with the caveat that they store all the frames containing something that looks like a license plate.

And hey, free dash cams!

Then your health insurance company ups your premiums because your license plate spends way more time in the McDonalds parking lot than Planet Fitness.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 9:03 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]


Intense
posted by thelonius at 9:10 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


> > or instance a "€œB"€ and an "€œ8"€ can look very similar, particularly if shot at an angle. So the software will record both as possibilities.

> i.e. the data is unreliable. Fine for repo work since they can quickly go back and verify manually if it's correct and nab the car. But unclear how useful it would be for tracking people.

Oh, that's probably not a big issue at all, particularly as you get more data. The errors aren't going to be "getting the plate completely wrong", but overwhelmingly single digit/letter errors - so the edit distance between the recorded plate and the actual plate will be small. Particularly if you have a sequence of BFC 5323 plates and then you get an 8FC 5323, it's not rocket science to correct the one error.

> Brian Shockley — vice president of marketing at Vigilant, corporate parent of Digital Recognition — plans to warn legislators that Massachusetts risks getting left behind in the use of a new tool that helps fight crime.

> “I fear that the proposed legislation would essentially create a safe haven in the Commonwealth for certain types of criminals, it would reduce the safety of our officers, and it could ultimately result in lives lost,” Shockley is scheduled to say in testimony prepared for the hearing before the Joint Transportation Committee.

GRRRRRR! "If we can't spy on you every second, perhaps a criminal will occasionally be caught a little later. There is no amount of liberty to great to sacrifice for even a marginal amount of safety."

EDIT: and later in the article:

> “We have nothing to do with the actual data collection process,” Digital Recognition’s Metaxas said in an interview. “We provide technology to ­repossession professionals.” [...] Digital Recognition already provides its entire data pool to more than 3,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide, free of charge for most searches.

GRRRRRR!
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:10 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]


There's no controlling the technology; we're too far gone and it would never work. The only solution is to get rid of the profit motive: Pass a law that says all data collected through surveillance must be made available, immediately, to the public at large. No more secrets. Either nobody knows a thing, or everybody gets to know it. And as an added fillip, state in the law that if anyone uses the information you gathered and disseminated to commit a crime, you're liable. That would sort this out right quick.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:14 AM on March 5 [9 favorites]


They're violating the copyright I have on all of the data and metadata generated by myself and my activities. I'll have to have the attorneys reach out to them to settle this issue.
posted by mikelieman at 9:16 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


Sys Rq: "Are their any laws on the books that prohibit covering, removing, or otherwise obscuring your license plates while the vehicle is not in use? If not, it seems like there's an untapped market for license plate cozies."

If the car is parked on a public street that probably wouldn't fly, but might be OK on private property.

This is like reason #42 for people in urban areas to ditch their personal cars in lieu of carshare/transit/bicycle/walking.
posted by exogenous at 9:17 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


Have you noticed that captcha's are displaying house numbers as part of the "type the numbers/words you see below" bit? I understand those are coming from Google Street View, and are "crowdsourcing" the identification of the numbers to help clean up the data set.

I would not be surprised in a year or two captcha's will be displaying parts of licence plates, for the same purpose of cleaning their database.
posted by jazon at 9:31 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]


Pity we don't send surveillance teams after people who scammed billions of dollars in the housing bubble to repossess their stuff.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 9:35 AM on March 5 [12 favorites]


jazon is on to something. This is usually how Google gets data. Make something fun (like Ingress) and by that gather data like photographs and GPS tuning. Or make something practical, like a captcha, and use it to decode scanned copyrighted works and now peoples license plates.
posted by dabitch at 9:47 AM on March 5


dances_with_sneetches: "Worf"

Easy - he was the Security Officer, and clearly this is all to do with National Security.
posted by symbioid at 9:50 AM on March 5


I would not be surprised in a year or two captcha's will be displaying parts of licence plates, for the same purpose of cleaning their database.

I went to a security conference a few years ago and believe me, these things are actually incredible. There's no need for crowd-sourcing the recognition. Plates are highly predictable in terms of dimensions, placement, and character structure.

One particularly interesting example was a company whose engine was running a demo. They had a big wheel kind of like on The Price Is Right, with dozens of plates attached to its surface. The thing was spinning super fast, and their camera was pointed at the front of it, attached to a laptop running their recognition software which was spitting out text-files of recognized plates.

There is no barrier to collecting and storing every plate recognized as well as its geographic location at the time it was spotted. There is every business incentive to storing this data forever and charging high prices to data miners.
posted by odinsdream at 9:52 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]


So - we should tax data, perhaps. If information is property, and we have property taxes... Reduce the incentive to store all that data.
posted by symbioid at 9:57 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]


Except if required by law under open access records, then you'd be exempt from that tax.

Also - I'd make a great bureaucrat.
posted by symbioid at 9:58 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


I don't understand how captchas help clean up data sets. Don't they need to already know what it says to verify that you entered the correct thing?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:00 AM on March 5


I don't understand how captchas help clean up data sets. Don't they need to already know what it says to verify that you entered the correct thing?

They are two-parts. One part the server knows the answer to, the other part it doesn't. It asks a bunch of people the same unknown part, uses the known part for authentication and uses dozens of similar answers to the unknown part to build a best-guess as to what the unknown part actually reads.
posted by odinsdream at 10:07 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


The cameras just look for plates, not cars. Will the cameras read a license-plate-like image off a tablet screen? Or does it need to be an e-ink screen? (ie are the cameras passive optical or do they use IR illumination?)
Tablet (LCD) would be better, because it could display twenty plates a second, salting databases much faster, while just looking like a blur to humans, not like a plate at all.

The whole data-collection/database system only works at all because it works autonomously, without requiring operator oversight. If people start installing solar-powered garden ornaments that also just happen to pour garbage into the databases, I doubt the databases or the collection methods could adapt very much to do anything about it. I guess they'd run to law enforcement and try to make out that the tablet screens were a threat to LEO activity somehow.
posted by anonymisc at 10:41 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]


ie are the cameras passive optical or do they use IR illumination?

The cameras are passive, I don't believe they use illumination.

There are APNR systems that use illumination — the ones in tollbooths for example — but not the mobile setups.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:03 AM on March 5


Wow!

I shit you not, My wife and I literally just saw a green, dinged up 2001 Honda Accord with square-ish cameras hooked up to the trunk lid in the parking lot of the plaza we were having lunch in.

I saw the car out of the corner of my eye, and I first thought it was some weird, new kind of rear spoiler, but when he got closer, I definitely was able to note these were four cameras. Two pointing directly to sides, and two at 45 degree angles to the car pointing out.

We were totally wondering what these were for. The only thing we could think of is that they might have been on some outsourced contractor for google's street view, which seemed somewhat reasonable (if a bit of a stretch), and I was going to google this when I got back from lunch.

I love how MetaFilter apparently can now Minority Report my own potential AskMe/Interet Search questions.
posted by Debaser626 at 11:06 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]


“Some people have a condo in Florida but actually live in New York ten months out of year,” said Metaxas. “A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidents and things. They don't realize that there's this, like, lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. Give you an example, show you what I mean: suppose you're thinkin' about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly someone'll say, like, "plate," or "shrimp," or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin' for one, either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.”
posted by Smedleyman at 11:50 AM on March 5 [7 favorites]


pukingmonkey's DEFCON 21 Presentation on ALPRs has some tips and experimental results on how to give the readers a hard time, if you're interested. The whole deck is highly interesting.
posted by JoeZydeco at 11:56 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]


At least with the police there's some sort of oversight.

Ha! Read some of the past threads about police doing this / outsourcing it. Yes, some jurisdictions have pretty explicit rules on getting, storing and using the data. But many do not, and operate mostly with a "we promise not to abuse it, you can trust us!" mentality. See this WashPost article for instance. (Though note that the DHS plan proposed in here was shot down after it was publicized.
posted by inigo2 at 12:14 PM on March 5


Police Hid Use of Cell Phone Tracker Because Manufacturer Asked Nicely
posted by homunculus at 12:39 PM on March 5


They're violating the copyright I have on all of the data and metadata generated by myself and my activities. I'll have to have the attorneys reach out to them to settle this issue.

You probably meant this as a joke, but...
posted by LogicalDash at 3:47 PM on March 5


Yeah, but can they find a 1964 Malibu heading west with dead, radioactive space aliens in the trunk?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:54 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


Mountain man is too dangerous. Maybe I could become a monk…
posted by ob1quixote at 7:18 PM on March 5


I don't have much to add here, but I actually went to college with the guy who wrote this. It's chilling stuff, and I'm glad he's the one covering it. He's a good dude.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 5:11 PM on March 6


You probably meant this as a joke, but...

Yeah, only half-joking. I thought up the idea years ago back when some pharmacy decided to start making you sign a form saying they can sell your data. I even took a form out to a pharmacy and learned that it was pointless to try to make a point with people who are just going through the motions themselves.

BUT, I think that if someone had the time to track down the details, it could be a thing...
posted by mikelieman at 11:26 PM on March 6


Jeez. I found the lyx files from 2003....
TERMS OF USE

ACCEPTANCE OF TERMS

In addition to being covered by Federal and International Copyright Law,
ANY AND ALL information ( THE DATA ) about Michael S.
Lieman derived from any source are subject to the following Terms of Use ("TOU").

Michael S. Lieman reserves the right to update the Terms of Use at any time without
notice to you. You can request an application to receive the most current version of the
TOU by sending 20 (twenty) dollars to the contact address contained in the copyright
notice for this TOU below.

LIMITATIONS ON USE.

Unless otherwise specified, THE DATA are for non-commercial use only.
You may not modify, copy, distribute, transmit, display, perform, reproduce,
publish, license, create derivative works from, transfer, or sell any
information, software, products or services obtained from THE DATA.
Any portion of THE DATA that is made available is the copyrighted work
of Michael S. Lieman.
Use of THE DATA is governed by the terms of the end user license agreement
("License Agreement").
An end user will be unable to use any Data, unless he or she first agrees
to the License Agreement terms.
The Data is made available for use by end users according to the License
Agreement.
Any reproduction or redistribution of the Data not in accordance with the
License Agreement is expressly prohibited by law, and may result in severe
civil and criminal penalties.
Violators will be prosecuted to the maximum extent possible.

WITHOUT LIMITING THE FOREGOING, COPYING OR REPRODUCTION OF THE DATA TO ANY
OTHER DATABASE, SERVER, FILE, OR LOCATION FOR FURTHER REPRODUCTION OR REDISTRIB
UTION IS EXPRESSLY PROHIBITED, UNLESS SUCH REPRODUCTION OR REDISTRIBUTION
IS EXPRESSLY PERMITTED BY THE LICENSE AGREEMENT ACCOMPANYING SUCH DATA.

Warranty

THE DATA IS NOT WARRANTED.
posted by mikelieman at 11:36 PM on March 6 [1 favorite]


Do Not Taunt THE DATA....
posted by mikelieman at 11:37 PM on March 6 [2 favorites]


Sorry, Tennessee!
posted by ob1quixote at 12:14 AM on March 7


Does Your Employer Perform HTTPS MITM Attacks On Employees?
School Tricks Pupils Into Installing a Root CA
posted by jeffburdges at 6:56 AM on March 9 [1 favorite]


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