The electronic snooping typically starts early, with meticulous tallying of your personal habits such as the timing of your wake-up alarm, the path of your morning jog and your “like” for a friend’s social media post.
Enhanced with live video — and, occasionally, audio — it only gets more robust as the day goes along, chronicling everything from your commute to work to your quick stop for gas on the way home.
“If we were to recount all the ways we are digitally tracked from morning until night, it would be astounding” to many people, said Philip Doty, associate dean of the School of Information at the University of Texas. “It’s not just that we leave (digital) trails, it’s that we leave trails that show much more about us than we might realize.”
Footprints on those digital trails include yours if you live and work in an urban area like Austin, carry a smartphone and pay with credit card.
The ubiquitous data collection often is beneficial for everyone — surveillance from a private security camera helped crack Austin’s serial bombing case in March. Regardless, people leery of it are missing the mark if they blame Big Brother, the privacy-invading symbol of totalitarianism in George Orwell’s famous novel, “1984.”
Government entities certainly have plenty of cameras watching us from strategic vantage points throughout Austin. More than 600 combined have been installed at busy intersections, major thoroughfares and popular entertainment areas by local and state transportation officials and by the Austin Police Department, a figure that doesn’t include toll lane cameras or security cameras inside and around public buildings.
But it’s rare for people to do anything nowadays without carrying smartphones, which some security experts consider the equivalent of being accompanied — voluntarily — by a “portable spy” because of the devices’ ability to collect data on everything from geolocation to biometrics.
Information amassed by smartphones, wearable electronic fitness gadgets and all manner of networked home appliances — often marketed as part of the “Internet of Things” — represents a bonanza for companies authorized to access it by dense, and generally unread, consumer consent forms. The devices also are jackpots for law enforcement agencies armed with search warrants, or for hackers able to break in.
“We call it ‘the internet of spy devices,’ ” because such networked appliances can reveal detailed narratives about personal habits, such as sleep patterns and comings and goings, said Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at Austin-based global intelligence firm Stratfor. “It is shocking the amount of information that people just put out there themselves.”
Meanwhile, private businesses have collectively installed thousands of their own digital security cameras, with the goal of deterring crime on their premises and aiding police when crimes occur, as well as to document customer interactions in case of complaints or lawsuits.
One of those private cameras, at a FedEx Office store in Sunset Valley, helped authorities identify and track down the suspect — Mark Conditt — in Austin’s serial bombing case in March.
Conditt was identified in the surveillance video mailing two packages while wearing a blond wig, a baseball cap and pink gloves. Authorities obtained a warrant to retrieve his internet search history from Google — revealing that he’d been looking up potential targets in Cedar Park — and then found him in the Round Rock area partly through cell phone activity in the hours before he blew himself up in his vehicle as police closed in.
While building a case against Conditt, investigators also obtained video footage of a person who appeared to be him at area Fry’s Electronics and Home Depot stores, apparently buying supplies used in the bombings.
Always on camera
Experts consider it par for the course that Conditt’s image was captured on camera multiple times once authorities knew for whom they were searching and had general ideas of where to look. That’s because video surveillance in various forms is approaching near blanket coverage in urban areas of the United States.
“In any metro, urban area, you’re probably photographed 100 times” during an average day, said Craig Ball, an attorney who specializes in computer forensics and electronic evidence. “You’re almost always going to be on camera. You are being photographed virtually in all of the metro areas, almost anywhere you go in public and increasingly in semi-public places.”
Austin is no exception.
In the Sixth Street district, a network of more than two dozen cameras mounted on poles and buildings captures — live — everything from quiet strolls for coffee on Sunday mornings to raucous outdoor parties on Saturday nights. Police say the video surveillance is a useful tool in an area that’s a major tourism and entertainment draw, enabling more efficient deployment of law enforcement resources and also providing rank-and-file officers with valuable up-to-the-second information when they’re called upon to wade into crowded, and often dangerous, situations.
“If we can do something to make sure we are enhancing the public safety, we want to do it,” said Brent Dupre, an Austin police commander who oversees the cameras, collectively known as the High Activity Location Observation program, or HALO.
Dupre said the cameras, which are monitored at police headquarters, aren’t intended to be heavy-handed, noting that they’re labeled and mounted where people can see them. He also said the footage generally is erased after seven days, and police spend no time scrutinizing pedestrians in the area.
“We’re not following people (or) keeping files on people,” said Dupre, who is in charge of the police department’s intelligence and technology division. “Everything we see (with the cameras) and record is in a public space.”
The system currently consists of 42 cameras, with the bulk along Fifth, Sixth and Seventh streets, stretching roughly from Congress Avenue to Interstate 35, although a handful also are in the Rundberg Lane area. An additional eight cameras are expected to be added to the system by the fall.
Regardless, the HALO cameras are just a drop in the bucket compared to the volume of live video surveillance that Austin residents are under every day. The city’s transportation department operates 414 traffic cameras around Austin, the Texas Department of Transportation operates 161 in Travis County, and the Austin Police Department operates 10 so-called “red light” cameras.
No ‘ax to grind’
Private cameras add up to many more. Among them, so-called “dash cams” — mounted on dashboards and aimed into traffic — are routinely deployed by commercial drivers and trucking fleets, while arrays of surveillance cameras have become standard parts of home security systems, generally capturing portions of adjoining neighborhood streets as well as the perimeters of private residences.
Cary Rabb, owner of the Round Rock-based Wag-A-Bag convenience store chain, said he now has at least eight digital surveillance cameras in each of his company’s 18 locations.
“I can’t imagine that any retail store would not” have video surveillance, Rabb said. “The technology is so cheap now, there is really no reason why you wouldn’t have full coverage.”
He said his cameras — which also capture audio — help safeguard employees and customers by deterring crime.
In addition, he said, they provide impartial documentation that can be reviewed in the event of customer complaints or so-called “slip-and-fall” lawsuits, and they provide evidence for police when crimes do occur. Footage typically is written over after 90 to 100 days.
The surveillance video “is the first thing the police ask for” when a crime is reported, Rabb said.
While that may strike some as a bit Big Brotherish, others consider it a step forward in achieving justice in criminal cases. They point out that eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable.
“Electronically stored information doesn’t have a point of view (or) an ax to grind,” said Ball, the attorney and computer forensics expert and also an adjunct professor at UT’s law school.
“It is as likely to keep someone from going to jail as it is to send somebody to jail,” he said. “If your goal is getting to the most reliable determination of where someone was, what they did, who they are — then the electronic trails are an asset, not something to fear.”
In addition to surveillance footage and geolocation information, Ball said all manner of electronic data has been entered as evidence in court cases, citing examples in which heart rates gleaned from fitness trackers were used to help determine a suspect’s level of physical activity prior to a crime and to help determine a victim’s time of death.
High-tech privacy issues
Still, many Americans are worried about the magnitude of personal information that’s being amassed about them in the digital age, and courts have been struggling as well with high-tech privacy issues.
More than 90 percent of U.S. adults think consumers have lost control of how personal information is collected and used by private companies, according to a Pew Research study published in late 2016, while 68 percent of internet users contend current laws aren’t sufficient to protect people’s privacy online.
As things stand, experts say the United States has relatively loose regulations governing how private companies can use such digital information as long as they comply with their own terms of service agreements, aside from some specific rules regarding financial and medical records and some cybersecurity mandates.
The information that’s collected by private companies typically is used to hone marketing campaigns and target ads at consumers deemed receptive. But privacy advocates warn it also can be sold and aggregated with data from other platforms, and the resulting behavioral portraits can potentially factor into everything from insurance rates and credit scores to hiring decisions.
Meanwhile, the Stored Communications Act of 1986 regulates how companies can be compelled by the government to disclose their customers’ private electronic data, but it hasn’t stopped law enforcement from increasingly viewing such digital troves as must-stops in investigations. Google received 48,941 search warrants and similar data requests in the first six months of 2017, company records show, up 8 percent from the same period in 2016 and more than triple the number in the first half of 2010.
One key case before the U.S. Supreme Court — involving a conviction for armed robberies in Michigan and Ohio that was based partly on cell phone data obtained without a search warrant — could clarify access to digital information held by third parties, with a ruling expected in late June or early July. The defendant in the case, Timothy Carpenter, was sentenced to 116 years in prison
Overall, electronic data collection has reached a point where anyone living in a modern, urban society has no choice but to leave myriad digital footprints in their wake each day, such as images on traffic cameras and security videos.
But some privacy experts say it remains possible to take measures that at least can reduce the magnitude of personal information open to being tracked.
Doty, of UT’s School of Information, said he avoids social media, often pays with cash and only uses Internet search engines and other web tools that advertise and adhere to strict privacy policies. In addition, he had some more basic advice for anyone worried about the growing ubiquity of continuous digital surveillance — turn off electronic and networked devices when they aren’t needed.
“When you are not using it, shut off your cellphone,” said Doty, who serves as associate director of the Technology and Information Policy Institute at UT.
“Shut off your desktop and your tablet,” he said. “While you can’t shut off everything, some things you can. Just because we can’t control (the digital data collection) entirely does not mean that we shouldn’t try to control the parts that we can.”