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June 19 2013

15:01

Not feeling up to speed on drone journalism?

“New perspectives from the sky,” a study by Dr. Mark Tremayne and Andrew Clark published in Digital Journalism, can help you with that.

The two University of Texas at Arlington researchers lay out eight case studies of drone use, from tornado coverage to paparazzi to self-surveillance and the Occupy movement.

The eight cases identified raise a host of legal, ethical and moral questions which were raised in this report. As previous research on surveillance technologies has suggested, UAVs equipped with cameras will further blur the public–private distinctions understood by earlier eras (Ford 2011; Thompson 2011). How will the public react? Interestingly, the answer is not obvious. Technologies that seem intrusive to some are readily accepted by others, especially when they have become accustomed to surveillance or feel some remaining degree of control (Humphreys 2011; Meyrowitz 2009). The right to privacy has been diminishing over the past 100 years due to issues such as the growth of government, the growth of the mass media and technological innovations that make it possible to see and hear things that would not have been possible even a few years ago.

May 23 2013

11:00

The Crowd and the Mob: Opportunities, Cautions for Constant Video Surveillance

Recent events in Boston highlight both the potential and hazards of ever-present cameras. In the hours following the April 15 bombing, law enforcement agencies called upon commercial businesses and the public to submit relevant footage from surveillance cameras and mobile devices. While the tsunami of crowdsourced data threatened to overwhelm servers and analysts, it provided clues that ultimately led to identifying the perpetrators. It also led to false identifications and harassment of innocent bystanders.

surveillance.jpg

Use of surveillance video to solve large-scale crimes first came to attention in the 2005 London subway bombings. In part due to its history of violent attacks by the IRA, London had invested heavily in closed-circuit television (CCTV) technology and had installed nearly 6,000 cameras in the underground system. In the days before smartphones, these publicly installed cameras were the most reliable source of video evidence, and law enforcement was able to identify the bombers using this footage.

With the advent of low-cost cameras and video recorders in smartphones, witnesses to events soon had a powerful tool to contribute to the law enforcement toolbox. Couple this technical capacity with the proliferation of social-networking platforms and the possibilities for rapid identification -- as well as the spread of misinformation -- become clear.

Vancouver police were overwhelmed with evidence from social media after the Stanley Cup riot in June 2011. This instance also highlighted the need for two things: stronger means of verification, since a number of photos were retouched or falsified, and protections against vigilantism or harassment of unofficial suspects.

authenticating digital images

Several projects currently in development address the need for a reliable system to authenticate digital images. In addition to a growing number of commercial companies specializing in audio and video forensic analysis, academic and non-profit labs are developing tools for this purpose. Informacam, a project of WITNESS and The Guardian Project, will strengthen metadata standards, and the Rashomon Project at UC Berkeley will aggregate and synchronize multiple videos of a given event. (Disclosure: The Rashomon Project is a project of the CITRIS Data and Democracy Initiative, which I direct.) These tactics, among others, will bolster the use of video evidence for criminal investigations and prosecutions.

Rashomon-Project-Screenshot-Feb-20131.jpg

Despite the clear advantages of drawing on crowdsourced footage for solving crimes, civil liberties groups and privacy advocates have warned about the dangers of perpetual surveillance. We saw in the Boston case the liability inherent in the ease and speed of circulating false claims and images. The New York Post published a front-page photo of two young men mistakenly identified as suspects, and the family of another young man, who had been missing for several weeks, was tormented by media seeking stories about the misplaced suspicion fueled by Reddit, an online social media aggregator.

surveillance vs. crime prevention

In addition to facilitating the "wisdom of crowds," technology grows more sophisticated for automated surveillance, including face recognition and gait analysis. In the last decade, many cities have accelerated implementation of surveillance systems, capitalizing on advances in computer technology and funds available from the Department of Homeland Security and other public sources. Yet whether considering fixed cameras or citizen footage, the effectiveness of surveillance for crime prevention is mixed. A 2009 CITRIS study shows San Francisco's installation of cameras in high-risk neighborhoods led to decreases in property crime but had apparently little effect on violent crime. If anything, perpetrators learned to evade the cameras, and crimes were displaced into neighboring areas or private spaces.

In open societies, technological advances should spark new discussions about ethics and protocol for their implementation. Communities, both online and in-person, have an opportunity to debate the benefits and costs of video evidence in the context of social-networking platforms. While their enthusiasm must be tempered by regard for due process, armchair investigators should be encouraged to work in partnership with public agencies charged with ensuring public safety.

Camille Crittenden is Deputy Director of CITRIS, based at UC Berkeley, where she also directs the Data and Democracy Initiative. Prior to this appointment, she served as Executive Director of the Human Rights Center at Berkeley Law, where she was responsible for overall administration of the Center, including fundraising, communications, and outreach, and developed its program in human rights, technology, and new media. She held previous positions as Assistant Dean for Development in the division of International and Area Studies at UC Berkeley and in development and public relations at University of California Press and San Francisco Opera. She holds a Ph.D. from Duke University.

Image of surveillance camera courtesy of Flickr user jonathan mcintosh.

July 07 2011

05:58

News of the World surveillance of detective: what Rebekah Brooks knew

Guardian :: Scotland Yard confronted Rebekah BrooksNews of the World, with evidence that her paper's resources had been used on behalf of Jonathan Rees and Sid Fillery, two private investigators who were suspected of murdering their former partner, Daniel Morgan. Resources were used to spy on the senior detective who was investigating their alleged crime. The Yard saw this as a possible attempt to pervert the course of justice.

Continue to read Nick Davies, www.guardian.co.uk

December 21 2010

18:00

Jennifer 8. Lee on raw data, APIs, and the growth of “Little Brother”

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Here, Jennifer 8. Lee gives us predictions, about the growing role of raw data, the importance of APIs, and the need for a break-out civic mobile app.

Raw data and the rise of “Little Brother”

In 2011 there will be a slew of riffs on the WikiLeaks anonymous dropbox scheme, sans gender drama — at least one of them by former WikiLeakers themselves. It will remain to be seen how protective the technologies are.

Basically, this codifies the rise of primary source materials — documents, video, photos — as cohesive units of consumable journalism. Turns out, despite the great push for citizen journalism, citizens are not, on average, great at “journalism.” But they are excellent conduits for raw material — those documents, videos, or photos. They record events digitally as an eyewitness, obtain documents through Freedom of Information requests, or have access to files through the work they do. We are seeing an important element of accountability journalism emerge.

Big Brother has long been raised as a threat of technological advancement (and certainly the National Security Agency has done its fair share of snooping). But in reality, it is the encroachment of Little Brother that average Americans are more likely to feel in our day-to-day lives — that people around us carry digital devices that can be pulled out for photo or videos, or they can easily copy digital files (compared to the months of covert photocopying that Ellsberg did for 7,000 pages) that others would rather not have shared with the world.

One notable strength of raw material is that it has a natural viral lift for two reasons: audience engagement, and the way legacy media operates with regard to sourcing and competition. Social media is a three-legged stool: create, consume, and share content. Because original material often feels more like an original discovery, it is more appealing to share. Documents, videos, and photos are there for anyone to examine and experience firsthand. The audience can interpret, debate, comment as they choose, and they feel greater freedom to reupload and remix that material, especially video.

The importance of APIs

There will also be an explosion in shift from raw data to information made available by application programming interfaces. A good example is ScraperWiki, out of the United Kingdom, which scrapes government data into repositories and then makes it available in an API.

Government agencies are hearing the public cry for data, and they are making raw data available. Sometimes it’s in friendlier formats like .csv or .xls. Sometimes it is in less usable formats, like PDF (as the House of Representatives did with a 3,000-page PDF of expenses) and even .exe files. (As the Coast Guard’s National Response Center has done with its incident data. It’s an extractable .xls with a readme. I know. It makes a lot of people cringe. At least their site isn’t also in Flash.) As part of this open push, the Obama administration has set up data.gov.

As that comes out, people are realizing that it’s not enough to get the public to bite, even though the underlying data might contain interesting material. It needs to be even easier to access. A good example of what happens when something becomes easily searchable: ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs project, on payments doctors received from pharmaceutical companies, generated an explosion of interest/investigations by taking data that was already technically public and standardizing it to make it searchable on the Internet.

What we need: the great civic mobile app

What we’re still waiting for: The break-out civic mobile app, a combination of Craigslist and Foursquare, where a critical mass of people can “check in” with comments, photos and complaints about their local community. It’s unclear how this will happen. Perhaps it will be built on the geolocation tools offered by Facebook or Twitter. Perhaps it will be an extension of Craigslist, which already has a brand associated with local community. Perhaps it’ll be something like SeeClickFix, which allows people to register complaint about potholes or graffiti, or CitySeed, a mobile app the Knight Foundation has given a grant to develop.

[Disclosure: Both the Knight Foundation and Lee are financial supporters of the Lab.]

November 30 2010

15:00

CCTV spending by councils/how many police officers would that pay? – statistics in context

News organisations across the country will today be running stories based on a report by Big Brother Watch into the amount spent on CCTV surveillance by local authorities (PDF). The treatment of this report is a lesson in how journalists approach figures, and why context is more important than raw figures.

BBC Radio WM, for example, led this morning on the fact that Birmingham topped the table of spending on CCTV. But Birmingham is the biggest local authority in the UK by some distance, so this fact alone is not particularly newsworthy – unless, of course, you omit this fact or allow anyone from the council to point it out (ahem).

Much more interesting was the fact that the second biggest spender was Sandwell – also in the Radio WM region. Sandwell spent half as much as Birmingham – but its population is only a third the size of its neighbour. Put another way, Sandwell spent 80% more per head of population than Birmingham on CCTV (£18 compared to Birmingham’s £10 per head).

Being on a deadline wasn’t an issue here: that information took me only a few minutes to find and work out.

The Press Association’s release on the story focused on the Birmingham angle too – taking the Big Brother Watch statements and fleshing them out with old quotes from those involved in the last big Birmingham surveillance story – the Project Champion scheme – before ending with a top ten list of CCTV spenders.

The Daily Mail, which followed a similar line, at least managed to mention that some smaller authorities (Woking and Breckland) had spent rather a lot of money considering their small populations.

How many police officers would that pay for?

A few outlets also repeated the assertions on how many nurses or police officers the money spent on surveillance would have paid for.

The Daily Mail quoted the report as saying that “The price of providing street CCTV since 2007 would have paid for more than 13,500 police constables on starting salaries of just over £23,000″. The Birmingham Mail, among others, noted that it would have paid the salaries of more than 15,000 nurses.

And here we hit a second problem.

The £314m spent on CCTV since 2007 would indeed pay for 13,500 police officers on £23,000 – but only for one year. On an ongoing basis, it would have paid the wages of 4,500 police officers (it should also be pointed out that the £314m figure only covered 336 local authorities – the CCTV spend of those who failed to respond would increase this number).

Secondly, wages are not the only cost of employment, just as installation is not the only cost of CCTV. The FOI request submitted by Big Brother Watch is a good example of this: not only do they ask for installation costs, but operation and maintenance costs, and staffing costs – including pension liabilities and benefits.

There’s a great ‘Employee True Cost Calculator‘ on the IT Centa website which illustrates this neatly: you have to factor in national insurance, pension contributions, overheads and other costs to get a truer picture.

Don’t blame Big Brother Watch

Big Brother Watch’s report is a much more illuminating, and statistically aware, read than the media coverage. Indeed, there’s a lot more information about Sandwell Council’s history in this area which would have made for a better lead story on Radio WM, juiced up the Birmingham Mail report, or just made for a decent story in the Express and Star (which instead simply ran the PA release).

There’s also more about spending per head, comparisons between councils of different sizes, and between spending on other things*, and spending on maintenance, staffing (where Sandwell comes top) and new cameras – but it seems most reporters didn’t look beyond the first page, and the first name on the leaderboard.

It’s frustrating to see news organisations pass over important stories such as that in Sandwell for the sake of filling column inches and broadcast time with the easiest possible story to write. The result is a homogenous and superficial product: a perfect example of commodified news.

I bet the people at Big Brother Watch are banging their heads on their desks to see their digging reported with so little depth. And I think they could learn something from Wikileaks on why that might be: they gave it to all the media at the same time.

Wikileaks learned a year ago that this free-to-all approach reduced the value of the story, and consequently the depth with which it was reported. But by partnering with one news organisation in each country Wikileaks not only had stories treated more seriously, but other news organisations chasing new angles jealously.

*While we’re at it, the report also points out that the UK spends more on CCTV per head than 38 countries do on defence, and 5 times more in total than Uganda spends on health. “UK spends more on CCTV than Bangladesh does on defence” has a nice ring to me. That said, those defence spending figures turn out to be from 2004 and earlier, and so are not exactly ideal (Wolfram Alpha is a good place to get quick stats like this – and suggests a much higher per capita spend)

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