July-August, 2015

Cactus Cameras in Arizona

Officials in Paradise valley, Arizona have installed fake cacti containing license-plate recognition surveillance cameras, according to Town Manager Kevin Burke.  The cameras will check license-plate numbers against a database of stolen car reports and AMBER alerts.  Mr. Burke said the town chose fake cacti for aesthetic reasons instead of regular light-poles.

Sources:  Bonnie Kristian, “Arizona town puts hidden cameras in fake cactus plants,” www.theweek.com, May 8, 2015: http://theweek.com/speedreads/554083/arizona-town-puts-hidden-cameras-fake-cactus-plants; Pete D’Amato, “Hidden cactus cameras are freaking out the residents of a small Arizona town,” www.dailymailonline, May 7, 2015: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3072731/Hidden-cactus-cameras-freaking-residents-small-Arizona-town.html

Google Chrome Eavesdropping Tool

Recent reports indicate that Google installed software in the Chromium browser that allows remote listening-in.  The software was designed to support Chrome’s “OK, Google” program, which allows a computer to respond when asked a question.  In response to critics of the program, Google stated, “While we do download the hotword module on startup, we do not activate it unless you opt in to hotwording.” Google also denied that it was listening to conversations.

One critic, Rick Falkvinge, the Pirate party founder, was quoted as saying, “Without consent, Google’s code had downloaded a black box of code that – according to itself – had turned on the microphone and was actively listening to your room … Which means that your computer had been stealth configured to send what was being said in your room to somebody else, to a private company in another country, without your consent or knowledge, an audio transmission triggered by … an unknown and unverifiable set of conditions.” Mr. Falkvinge further stated that the “default install will still wiretap your room without your consent, unless you opt out, and more importantly, know that you need to opt out.”

Source:  http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jun/23/google-eavesdropping-tool-installed-computers-without-permission

Airborne Surveillance

A new surveillance tool called a Persistent Surveillance System (PSS), was developed to combat those placing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq.  The system was found to be successful, and the U.S. Air force has since contributed more than $1 billion to improve it.  A 5-day trial-run was done in Dayton, Ohio in 2012, and won a recommendation from the police chief for permanent deployment; however, subsequent public hearings dissuaded officials from approving its use.  The company has been in negotiations with other cities, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, Moscow and London.

The system employs a high-altitude aircraft which circles a target area, e.g., a city, and each second takes a photograph of a 64-square kilometer area.  The images are transferred to a command center where analysts can scroll back or forward through the images from the scene of a crime and track the perpetrators.

Sources:  Nick Whigham, “US company gives glimpse into future of government surveillance,” www.news.com.au, July 7, 2015:  http://www.news.com.au/technology/innovation/us-company-gives-glimpse-into-future-of-government-surveillance/story-fnpjxnlk-1227431310819; Persistent Surveillance Systems:  http://www.pss-1.com/

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor