The Business of Surveillance: Balancing Concerns Over Ubiquitous Technology

Since the events of September 11, there has been increased concern regarding security.  To address these concerns, many private and public companies have looked to using various “ubiquitous” technologies to provide surveillance and security services.  For example, the global video surveillance industry has seen a boost in growth.  Joe Freeman, president of J.P. Freeman Co. Inc., expects the $7 billion global video surveillance industry to almost double within the next few years. [1]  As the market for ubiquitous technologies continues to grow and then technology itself improves, some critics grumble that we are ensuring our security at the expense of privacy.

A technology that has come under scrutiny when discussing privacy is Radio Frequency Identification (RFID).  RFID draws its foundation in the barcodes and UPC codes found on many products in use today.  A reader sends a radio signal to a RFID tag or transponder.  The RFID tag responds to the radio signal with information contained on the chip which is received by the reader.  Once the devices have coupled, the tag sends a signal that is received by the source with information found on the chip.  The tag can be passive, which does not require a power source, or active, which does require a power source.  Passive tags draw their power from the incoming radio signal. [2] The majority of the privacy concerns have been in regards to the passive tags due to their widespread use in commercial applications.

In 2003, a group of activist organizations issued a position paper on the dangers to privacy due to RFID technology.  Some of the issues were:

Hidden placement of tags. RFID tags can be embedded into/onto objects and documents without the knowledge of the individual who obtains those items. As radio waves travel easily and silently through fabric, plastic, and other materials, it is possible to read RFID tags sewn into clothing or affixed to objects contained in purses, shopping bags, suitcases, and more.
Unique identifiers for all objects worldwide. The Electronic Product Code potentially enables every object on earth to have its own unique ID. The use of unique ID numbers could lead to the creation of a global item registration system in which every physical object is identified and linked to its purchaser or owner at the point of sale or transfer.
Massive data aggregation. RFID deployment requires the creation of massive databases containing unique tag data. These records could be linked with personal identifying data, especially as computer memory and processing capacities expand.
Hidden readers. Tags can be read from a distance, not restricted to line of sight, by readers that can be incorporated invisibly into nearly any environment where human beings or items congregate. RFID readers have already been experimentally embedded into floor tiles, woven into carpeting and floor mats, hidden in doorways, and seamlessly incorporated into retail shelving and counters, making it virtually impossible for a consumer to know when or if he or she was being "scanned."
Individual tracking and profiling. If personal identity were linked with unique RFID tag numbers, individuals could be profiled and tracked without their knowledge or consent. For example, a tag embedded in a shoe could serve as a de facto identifier for the person wearing it. Even if item-level information remains generic, identifying items people wear or carry could associate them with, for example, particular events like political rallies. [3]
RFID tags are currently being used by the U.S. military to track assets.  Companies such as Wal-Mart use RFID tags for tracking and inventory purposes on item cartons and flats, but have yet to tag individual items. [4] RFID are not just limited to commercial products.  In 2004, 160 employees in the Mexican Attorney General's Office were implanted with VeriChip RFID devices. [5] Ironically, some of the advantages that RFID offers over other identification systems also are some of the issues that RFID has with privacy.

One technology that has come under criticism is Shotspotter.  The Shotspotter technology, which is currently being used in several U.S. cities, is comprised of series of sensors that use acoustic triangulation to locate gunfire across wide areas. [6] A argument against Shotspotter is that it potentially disregards an individual’s right to privacy.  Although the system is triggered on gunshot sound, some people argue that there is nothing stopping police from detecting any sound that they want, including individual words or phrases.  Currently the system is only used for the sound of gunfire, and Shotspotter claims that the way that it is currently set up ensures that speech will not be detected. [7] Additionally, representatives for Shotspotter state that “anyone who does fire a gun has broken the law, and it is our position—with which district attorneys, police and civil rights groups agree—that firing a weapon illegally within city limits creates a significant threat to public safety and therefore warrants the detection of the event, investigation of its perpetrators, and possible indictment of suspects.” [8] This claim has not yet been challenged in court.

New products are being developed everyday; some building off of existing technologies while others are entirely different breeds of products.  The trend appears to be an active approach to security compared to the passive technologies of the past.  Intelligent video, which alerts the owner when an event occurs, is currently an “industry whose sales will grow from $60 million to $400 million within five years, according to global consulting group Frost & Sullivan.” [9]

With the increasing number of new ubiquitous technologies entering society, there exists an increasing privacy concern regarding those technologies.  While there are current laws that protect privacy concerns, the changing faces of technology makes it hard to ensure that the laws will encompass these new situations.  Some people have reacted to these concerns by attempting to stop or slow down the implementation of the technologies, either by passing new laws limiting their use or challenging in court the legality of their use.  This has the effect of hampering the design and development of new products.  Inventors do not want to invent products that will not be used and companies do not want to invest in products they cannot take to market.  Instead of using the law to stifle design and development, the law should carefully be used to promote it.  Some of the concerns may be unfounded, and others might be mitigated by our understanding of the technologies and the ramifications brought by it.  Surveillance and security is big business and will continue to grow.  In order to promote this ever expanding industry, society needs to balance its concerns over the implementation of the technologies against the benefits gained from its use.

[1] Washington, Private Eyes, Public Gains, June 20, 2005.

[2] Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility. (last visited Feb. 9, 2007).

[3] RFID Position Statement of Consumer Privacy and Civil Liberties Organizations. Nov. 20, 2003.

[4] W. David Gardner, RFID Chips Implanted In Mexican Law-Enforcement Workers, INFORMATION WEEK, Jul. 15, 2004,

[5] Wal-Mart Details RFID Requirement, RFID JOURNAL, Nov. 6, 2003,

[6], (last visited Feb. 7, 2007).

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Who watches the watchers in surveillance society, Feb. 6, 2007,