There were several reasons at once to raise the topic of how the state can use technology to monitor citizens and what they do in everyday life. Unfortunately, this topic is replete with myths, conjectures that are created both by those who are afraid of being spied on and by officials who invent horror stories and launch them into wide circulation. In recent weeks, the phrase “digital concentration camp” has appeared from someone’s light hand, it is linked to the restrictions on movement that were introduced in Moscow, when you need to receive a QR code, as well as bind your personal data plus a car number or an electronic number to this code. transport card (Troika / Arrow).
I have always liked the accuracy of the definitions, and despite the literary, figurativeness of the phrase about a digital concentration camp, it does not reflect the essence of the same QR codes. A concentration camp is a place where everyone is gathered, placed at least under observation. The same QR codes for this task do not serve in any way, since they are deeply secondary and cannot be used by the state or the Moscow City Hall for anything. There is an obvious element of deception and intimidation here, with all the media talking about the dire penalties that will follow if you violate the self-isolation regime. For example, I liked the tale that the cameras that record traffic fines in Moscow and the Moscow region will now be connected to the database of QR codes and everyone who did not issue them or did it incorrectly will start receiving receipts for 5 rubles. And not just one-time, but for a ride under each camera: we drove under a dozen cameras – please pay 000 thousand rubles. The absurdity of the fine itself, the lack of legal justification for the QR code – all this was understood in one way or another by many people, I will not dwell on this. The legal form of the QR code, in my opinion, is most consistent with the concept of “filkin certificate” – a serious document that is designed to convince us that there is high technology behind it and everything is under the hood.
The discussion that Moscow is trying to launch a surveillance system and QR codes under the guise of measures to combat the virus – this is part of such a system, raises a smile. It is impossible to seriously consider this statement, since the system for monitoring the movements of citizens has existed for a long time, it works effectively and no QR codes are needed for it! The story around QR codes is the creation of a myth for people to restrict their movements and remain in quarantine in their homes. Moreover, all the myths created in the last month do not stand up to even the smallest reality check.
For example, on the very first day of linking transport cards to permits, it turned out that the system did not work, in transport you can use cards that are not indicated anywhere. Initially, you could write yourself QR codes with any information, it was de facto not verified. Already retroactively introduced the simplest checks to clean out frankly fake passes. But it will not be difficult to forge a pass if you have a head on your shoulders, another thing is, why do this if you can get it in the usual way?
Let’s take a look at the city’s infrastructure and how it is built, what it allows you to find out about a person, how anonymous he remains. To get around the city, you can use private or public transport. With personal transport, everything is quite simple, the car has numbers that are tracked on traffic cameras. The car does not have to be registered to you, it can be a husband, wife, grandfather, uncle from Melitopol, this does not play a big role. A car as an object is not a needle in a haystack, the location is always known, outside the city the zones where the car can be (which cameras passed) are known. Somewhere the grid of cameras is dense, somewhere it is less frequent.
In public transport, things look different. Transport cards are anonymous (with the exception of named city cards); at first glance, they cannot be tied to specific people. Alas, this is a delusion. Each card has a unique number, which is fixed on the turnstiles in the metro, in the validators on the transport. Tracking the movements of each card is not difficult. But the person is unknown, isn’t it?
The loyalty program for the Troika card is the first thing that comes to mind, there you need to enter information about yourself in order to take advantage of the bonuses. But this is sheer nonsense, at the state level, no one will rely on chance and the fact that a person himself will reveal his personality.
The video surveillance system comes into play, and you need to separate the different elements of this system. Back in the USSR, the metro became a platform for testing new technologies, in particular, video surveillance systems. In Moscow, despite the gigantic passenger traffic, video cameras made it possible to trace the path of individual passengers, to detect their entry points, crossings and exits. Thirty years ago, the number of cameras in the subway was negligible, these are entrances and exits, lobbies, but not rolling stock. Today the number of cameras is several orders of magnitude greater, they cover almost all spaces and provide continuous monitoring.
Now let’s add an element such as face recognition. For example, at the Shabolovka station, an anonymous citizen enters through a turnstile. His card is registered at 8 hours 16 minutes 24 seconds. In the video analysis system, you need to get a picture of the turnstile (part of the overall picture), select a face and remember it. Having received the entry point, the system can track this “anonymous” person, including see which station he left. These are all automated operations that do not require any manual labor.
Ground transportation also has cameras, but they are not yet connected to the same base as in the metro, while these bases are scattered. It is a matter of time when a common space arises, in which cameras at traffic lights and in yards will also be added. Moreover, local cameras will acquire their own brains, they will be able to check faces with the base of wanted citizens and immediately send a signal to the control center that a match has been found. In China, such systems do not just work, they are already being applied in practice, and very widely. In fact, every camera becomes somewhat smart, cities are covered with a wide grid of such cameras. Read about how these technologies are used for good.
Let’s go back to ground transportation. After uploading video from different vehicles, you can trace the path of a person in the city (we do not know the name yet). You can rewind history and see movements in the past, calculate standard routes. Binding a transport card to a person’s face does not violate someone’s freedom, it is not stipulated anywhere, and in principle it is impossible to complain somewhere, unless you write a letter to Sportloto.
How to find out who our anonymous person is? There are a dozen different ways, one will not work, then the other is perfect. The most commonplace way is to identify the transport card by the payment base; many buy and pay for cards using their bank cards. You may not do this at the very beginning when you buy a card. But at some point, you will light up your card in the machine where you need to replenish the balance, or at the cash desk, when there is no cash at hand. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the information, but the guys from the security sector say that about 90% of all transport cards are deprived of anonymity (they are tempted to write “digital innocence”).
Is your face your property? Formally, yes. Let me ask the question differently – is the image of your face, body, perhaps a digitized representation of your gait? The answer is no. All this can be used by both private companies and the state to create any systems that track movements. It is clear that the state perceives this exclusively as its prerogative, but private business is also building its own systems. There is practically no legal field in this area anywhere in the world, it is too fresh.
The state has an advantage, sooner or later you find yourself in this or that base. Driver’s license, passport, registration on the “State Service” website, eventually some of your image will end up in one of the databases. There is no single base with this information, it remains scattered, and the search for a person everywhere is carried out separately. In the same metro, a person is indexed for the first time, but further search for matches is carried out in all databases. I will leave out of the brackets the question of the accuracy of face recognition, erroneous alarms, since with a large amount of information, the accuracy constantly increases over time, and it is not just acceptable, but uniquely allows you to identify an object (in our case, a person).
Let’s add cameras that stand at every entrance in Moscow, they also collect information non-stop, recognize faces at night and even at a distance of ten meters from the entrance! In some houses, the courtyard space is shot through by cameras, providing full coverage of the area.
Orwell and Big Brother made an indelible impression on an entire generation, reflecting many people’s fears that the state will learn to follow every step of any person. I have bad news – states have already learned how to do this, and such systems are quite effective. Each year, their effectiveness and the amount of data / knowledge will only increase.
And here we come to another myth that is important for understanding the modern concept of security. This is a search for a needle in a haystack. That is, the customer, represented by the state, wants to be able to find and calculate the anonymous person, find out who he is, and do it within a reasonable time frame. To do this, you have to collect information about everyone without exception, otherwise this opportunity cannot be realized. Could this be called a mass surveillance system? With some stretch and a number of reservations.
The capabilities of states are amazing, but from the point of view of ideology, absolutely nothing has changed. In the past, when someone committed a crime, they were searched for by interviewing witnesses, restoring social connections, looking for leads, and so on. Today, there is no great need for this, since in the end a continuous information field will be created in which all movements of citizens will be taken into account, and they will be anonymous until a situation occurs, for example, the same crime.
States do not want to create a universal tool that allows one to concentrate the full amount of information in one hand. Therefore, in most countries, all databases are scattered, access to them is strictly regulated. And in Russia exactly the same situation. The higher the level of an official and special services, the more information they have access to. But this is not a single database, it is an opportunity to quickly compare data from different databases.
The state does not monitor all its citizens simultaneously in real time, there is no such task, and it is too complicated for technical implementation today. In the not too distant future this will be possible, but today it simply does not exist. Until the moment you become an object of attention, your life, your movements do not bother anyone and are not tracked in any way. The concept of this is well described in the 1998 film Enemy of the State. Throw away all the spy tinsel, look at the idea, it is conveyed very accurately.
A private life is possible only within the framework of your home, outside an apartment or house you find yourself in public spaces, where thousands of cameras constantly record you and track your every step. A little later, the control of conversations, their recognition will be added to this. One company has already launched voice message recognition in messengers, released a B2C product, which it originally created for the state and control of telephone conversations. The digitization of our lives is in full swing, whether we like it or not.
I do not see any danger for myself in this. It is a tool and can be both helpful and harmful. Like a shovel, you can dig it, or you can attach someone so that a person dies. And here everything depends on society, on what the state looks like, what forms of interaction exist. From my story it follows that we are moving towards a utopia in the style of “Black Mirror”, but, probably, life will still be more boring and familiar. We already see that the system of total control has no effect on everyday life. And believe me, QR codes as an attempt to control you against the background of the above are some kind of kindergarten, forgive such a comparison.
The phone as the perfect tool for spying on a person
People cannot leave the house without their phone, they are ready to forget anything, but not the phone. Without this helper, we often feel inferior, we are deprived of a large chunk of our life. And the fact that phones have become so common in everyday life is good, they give us a lot. But it is also the perfect item to serve as a spy and show everything you did. There is no need to listen to your conversations, read your correspondence, the phone will tell you much more about you than you might even imagine.
I like the example shared by an information security officer at one of the banks. Scammers try to deceive people, cheat on money, use left-handed SIM cards, or mask their number using a GSM gateway when it is not visible who is calling. But this does not play any role, since the victim can tell the time of the call, as well as its duration. All this information is contained in any phone, without exception.
Is it possible to find the caller by the time of the call and its duration? Definitely. It is necessary that the operators check such calls, this is a large amount of work for searching the database (it is automatic, no one does it with hands and eyes), but then several records will be found. It’s a matter of technique, how to detect the location of the fraudster.
Why are these opportunities not being used massively? The answer is obvious, it is not the Ministry of Internal Affairs that possesses such means, but a number of special services that do not engage in fraud, they have a different spectrum of tasks. In principle, the Ministry of Internal Affairs can use such a search, which they sometimes do when it comes to high-profile crimes. And this is another important point – this is an expensive tool for the operator, it cannot be used in large quantities, it is selective.
Mass surveillance must assume that a large circle of people can see everything that other people are doing. This is not the case in any country in the world, since surveillance ultimately comes down to specific people, groups of persons, and not to all citizens indiscriminately.
Is it possible to train AI algorithms to look for non-standard behavior in using phones – moving, making calls, and so on? Yes! What is needed for this? Initial data set. For example, we have a person who is caught posting bookmarks with prohibited substances. And there are more than a dozen such people. The police know from which phone numbers they carried out their activities; more is not needed to train the algorithm. You don’t even need access to the phone itself and its contents, it’s unnecessary. The operator knows all calls, movements, Internet sessions (you don’t need to see what’s inside, even if they are protected by a VPN connection), in the end, the algorithm will be able to find other similar devices on the network. They fall into a set that has a similar pattern of use. And in a similar way, you can search for anyone, anywhere. People do not realize how much information is available to the operator from the technical data. No one needs access to your correspondence, calls, this is superfluous. Finding out everything about you, what you breathe and what you live, is much easier without fiction (I remember Dr. House – “all people lie”). And such information shows exactly who can become an object for study.
I am often asked how to protect yourself from this. The answer sounds trite – to be an ordinary person, to lead an ordinary life. There is no other way to get through these networks. Nowhere in the world, not in the USA, not in Russia, not in China. Giving up your phone will not save you and will not save you, since this is only part of the story, albeit quite significant.
Your phone knows everything there is to know about you. And your operator knows about it. Add to this the complete transparency of the banking sector, the fact that your personal account, in one way or another, is tied to a phone number, and you will get an understanding that no secrets exist. The concept of privacy is dead, another thing is that there is an illusion that such systems have not yet been created, which means that someone can hide something from states. It’s a delusion.
The extent to which the state sees the costs and revenues of companies, specific individuals, leads to a gradual tightening of control over taxes, which is correct. This is another consequence of digital technologies, it is almost impossible to hide from the all-seeing eye. But just like in control, there is no massive use of the tool, first they start to control a big business, then they go down – ordinary people at the very end of the chain. And these tools are not automated, they are always applied manually. Why? In order not to break the wood and cause social tension.
It’s funny when certain politicians start playing spies, trying to change SIM cards, phones, and pretending to be active in protecting information. This approach works for their competitors, which are at their level. There is no protection from the state, it has the tools for complete control (of course, not all states in the world, there are five or six of them today with similar capabilities).
As a conclusion, I would like to say the following. Mass control systems appeared more than ten years ago, they have evolved a lot and continue to evolve. It is impossible and unnecessary to stop progress in this area, since the benefits to society outweigh the potential disadvantages. This is a great way to fight crime, any kind of crime. The state does not use such systems for mass surveillance, the object is always a person. And there are not very many such people, in percentage terms it is a fraction of a percent of the number of people living.
I have no desire to take any position, to assert how bad or good it is. This is already there, and this is a reality that will not change. My desire is to tell about this so that there are no illusions that there is privacy, outside the home there is an opportunity to be anonymous. We have long passed the stage when a person in the city could remain unrecognized.
It is clear that the described systems are not everywhere in full, Moscow is the leader in their number and range. In small towns, such systems will come later, but there, due to the smaller number of inhabitants, they will be much more effective. And before you resent that you are being watched, think about what exactly confuses you in this matter. The very fact that the hardware is recording your actions? So our whole world is now arranged in this way. Is there something that excites you about what you are doing, and you think it’s better not to know about it to other people? What is the cause of your concern?
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