Omniveillance and the Constitution 3.0

January 8th, 2012

I just downloaded Jeff Rosin and Ben Wittes’ cool new book, Constitution 3.0, that discusses how our laws should adopt to evolving technologies. Rosen’s chapter, The Deciders: Facebook, Google, and the Future of Privacy and Free Speech, has some overlap with my work.

Facebook decides to post live feeds from public and private surveillance cameras so they can be searched online. After Facebook grants the request, anyone in the world can log onto the Internet, select a particular street view on Facebook, and zoom in on a particular individual. The user can then back-click to retrace that person’s steps since she left the house in the morning or forward-click to see where she is headed. With facial recognition technology, a user can click on an image of a stranger, plug the image into a Facebook or Google database to identify her by name, and then follow her movements from door to door. Imagine that this ubiquitous surveillance is challenged as a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures of our “persons, houses, papers, and effects.” Under existing doctrine, the Fourth Amendment may not be construed to regulate Facebook, a private corporation, and even if there were enough places.

. . .

As mobile camera technology becomes ubiquitous, the Court might hold that the government is entitled to have access to the same linked camera system that ordinary members of the public have become accustomed to browsing. Moreover, the Court has said that we have no expectation of privacy in data that we voluntarily surrender to third parties.’ In cases in which digital images are captured on cameras owned by third parties and stored in the digital cloud-that is, on distributed third-party servers-we have less privacy than citizens took for granted at the time of the American founding. . . .

Because prolonged surveillance on Open Planet potentially reveals far more about each of us than round-the-clock GPS tracking does, providing real-time images of all our actions rather than simply tracking the movements of our cars, it could also be struck down as an unreasonable search of our persons.

. . .

If the past is any guide, the answer may depend on whether citizens, in 2025, view round-the-clock surveillance as invasive and unreasonable or, instead, have become so used to it, on and off the web, in virtual space and real space, that they demand Open Planet rather than protesting against it. In the age of Google and Facebook, technologies that thoughtfully balance privacy with free expression and other values have tended to be adopted only when companies see their markets as demanding some kind of privacy protection or when engaged constituencies have mobilized in protest against poorly designed architectures and demanded better ones, helping to create a social consensus that the invasive designs are unreasonable.

This reminds me of something I wrote in 2007:

As distinguished from previous forms of public monitoring, this new form of surveillance will be omnipresent, as it can record vast areas of space over a very small period of time. It provides the users of this system with omniscience to know everything happening in a specific location at a specific time. Furthermore, this information will be indefinitely retained, and easily accessible. When future versions of this technology is properly implemented, it will be possible to enter a time, date, and location, and witness what happened at that moment as if you were there. It is a virtual time machine. In addition, using facial recognition technology, it will even be possible to search for a particular person’s location at any given recorded moment. . . . No place would be safe from the unblinking eye of omniveillance.

Ubiquitous surveillance? Omniveillance?