The pros — but mostly cons — of surveillance

Future Shock
By PHILIP EIL  |  November 13, 2013

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'DATA DOESN'T GO AWAY' Stepanovich.
Amie Stepanovich isn’t shy about describing the stakes of her work.

Standing at a lectern in a Providence Biltmore banquet hall last Friday, Stepanovich, the director of the Domestic Surveillance Project at the DC-based nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), who was invited to speak at the evening’s annual Rhode Island ACLU dinner, described a world where drones equipped with facial-recognition technology allow governments to identify participants in protest rallies, where smart cars and smartphones help police track a person’s whereabouts, and where the Department of Homeland Security can scan social media networks for murmurs of dissent. “This technology is all now available and they can strip us of our privacy rights, and by extension, restrict association, assembly, organization in such a widespread manner that would have the most oppressive regimes in history foaming at the mouth,” she said.

Adding to the urgency, she said, was the fact that many of these activities remain unregulated. For example, not a single federal law regarding drone use has made it out of committee in Washington, DC. And so not only is it is left up to individual states to pick up the slack (she applauded the RI ACLU for its plans to re-submit drone legislation in the upcoming 2014 session), but American citizens themselves have an obligation to remain informed and vigilant.

“As a country right now we’re at a turning point,” she said toward the end of her remarks. One option is to build a system that preserves civil liberties and guards against the widespread proliferation of surveillance — a system so transparent that Edward Snowden’s aren’t necessary, “but when they are, they’re treated with dignity and respect,” she said.

The second option? ”We will surround ourselves with the architecture to support an all-seeing, all-knowing surveillance state on a scale that the world has never seen, a Panopticon built on the backs of people asking ‘What do I have to hide?’ and ‘Isn’t this making me safer?’ ”

EPIC owns one of those nimble, buzzing, little flying machines that will become more and more commonplace in upcoming years. And when the Phoenix chatted with Stepanovich in the Biltmore lobby before her ACLU speech, she described piloting the $200 drone as it zoomed around the office. The device is controlled using a video game-esque phone app featuring two toggle switches controlling its altitude and direction.

“Surveillance is easy,” she said. “Which means if it’s simple on this level for you or I, when you have the resources of a big entity, it becomes hard to imagine how big surveillance can get.”

Our talk has been edited and condensed.

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