July 23, 2011
“The real danger is the gradual erosion of individual liberties through automation, integration,and interconnection of many small, separate record-keeping systems, each of which alone may seem innocuous, even benevolent, and wholly justifiable.” U. S. Privacy Study Commission
Here is an excerpt about a program called Virtual Alabama which is based on GIS from Surveillance in the Time of Insecurity By Torin Monahan
Virtual Alabama is a complex database replete with three-dimensional imagery of most of the state (including, for example, buildings, roadways, power plants, refineries, and airports), GIS overlays for additional contextual information, building schematics, video surveillance access for all public cameras, algorithmic scenarios for likely direction of chemical plumes in case of a toxic release, and so on (see figure 1).
Modeled after the Google Earth platform, this science fiction- like surveillance system allows real-time access for all first responders in all counties within the state. James Walker explained that at first DHS had a very difficult time convincing local sheriffs that they should participate and share their data. This obstacle was overcome, however, when DHS promised to include a GIS overlay for all registered sex offenders in the state, showing exactly where each of them are supposed to be residing.
. . . The vision for Virtual Alabama, and for similar applications in other states, is to map everything and share data liberally. DHS envisions being able to share data regionally and nationally so that all emergency responders have access to the system, from local public safety providers to the National Guard—and, one must suspect, private contractors as well, especially because in addition to security contractor companies like Blackwater, which has been rebranded as “Xe Services,” fire departments have jumped on the privatization bandwagon too.27 DHS would like to achieve total “situational awareness” from the system, including real-time GPS data on the location of all state troopers, real-time readouts of available beds in hospitals, and GIS overlays for hunting licenses issued and chicken farms (in case of an avian flu outbreak).
There may be perks for businesses too. James Walker said that he would like to make the data available to corporations as an incentive for them to relocate to Alabama. Or, he continued, insurance companies and FEMA might like to have access to before-and-after aerial photographs of disaster sites so that they can determine who should really qualify for reimbursement to repair damaged property. In other words, this high-tech security application can be used to protect the assets of private companies or the state from the “security threat” of fraud.
. . . What is glaringly absent here is any discussion of the extent to which systems like Virtual Alabama could create new security threats. The detailed mapping of critical information can be as dangerous as it is useful if it falls into the “wrong hands.” This possibility, however, is not on the agenda of those advocating for such systems, which reveals that the goal of generating profitable data may be just as important as protecting the public, if not more important.
. . . the privacy of individuals is at significant risk with current levels of liberal data sharing among private companies and government agencies, along with the absence of serious privacy regulations in the United States.29 DHS Fusion Centers promise to institutionalize the data sharing that has been ad hoc to date. Second, while it is unclear if Google or similar companies will have access to data entered into security applications like Virtual Alabama, the centralized stockpiling of diverse data elements will certainly allow for intensified surveillance of people, whether for purposes of public safety, consumer marketing, fraud detection, or other unimagined possibilities enabled by these systems. The limited information currently available on these nascent systems indicates that DHS is more than willing to approve the sharing of public data with private companies to encourage them to relocate their businesses or help them detect fraud. It is only a matter of time before other mutually profitable—but probably liberty-decaying—arrangements are discovered.