Tag Archives: Ubiquitous surveillance

Watching and listening.


Pay no attention to Alexa, she’s an AI.

There was a flurry of reports from dozens of news sources (including CNN) last week that an Amazon Echo, (Alexa), called the police during a New Mexico incident of domestic violence. The alleged call began a SWAT standoff, and the victim’s boyfriend was eventually arrested. Interesting story, but after a fact-check, that could not be what happened. Several sources including the New York Times and WIRED debunked the story with details on how Alexa calling 911 is technologically impossible, at least for now. And although the Bernalillo, New Mexico County Sheriff’s Department swears to it, according to WIRED,

“Someone called the police that day. It just wasn’t Alexa..”

Even Amazon agrees from a spokesperson email,

“The receiving end would also need to have an Echo device or the Alexa app connected to Wi-Fi or mobile data, and they would need to have Alexa calling/messaging set up,”1

So it didn’t happen, but most agree, while it may be technologically impossible today, it probably won’t be for very long. The provocative side of the WIRED article proposed this thought:

“The Bernalillo County incident almost certainly had nothing to do with Alexa. But it presents an opportunity to think about issues and abilities that will become real sooner than you might think.”

On the upside, some see benefits from the ability of Alexa to intervene in a domestic dispute that could turn lethal, but they fear something called “false positives.” Could an off handed comment prompt Alexa to make a call to the police? And if it did would you feel as though Alexa had overstepped her bounds?

Others see the potential in suicide prevention. Alexa could calm you down or make suggestions for ways to move beyond the urge to die.

But as we contemplate opening this door, we need to acknowledge that we’re letting these devices listen to us 24/7 and giving them the permission to make decisions on our behalf whether we want them to or not. The WIRED article also included a comment from Evan Selinger of RIT (whom I’ve quoted before).

“Cyberservants will exhibit mission creep over time. They’ll take on more and more functions. And they’ll habituate us to become increasingly comfortable with always-on environments listening to our intimate spaces.”

These technologies start out as warm and fuzzy (see the video below) but as they become part of our lives, they can change us and not always for the good. This idea is something I contemplated a couple of years ago with my Ubiquitous Surveillance future. In this case, the invasion was not as a listening device but with a camera (already part of Amazon’s Echo Look). You can check that out and do your own provocation by visiting the link.

I’m glad that there are people like Susan Liautaud (who I wrote about last week) and Evan Selinger who are thinking about the effects of technology on society, but I still fear most of us take the stance of Dan Reidenberg, who is also quoted in the WIRED piece.

“‘I don’t think we can avoid this. This is where it is going to go. It is really about us adapting to that,” he says.’”


Nonsense! That’s like getting in the car with a drunk driver and then doing your best to adapt. Nobody is putting a gun to your head to get into the car. There are decisions to be made here, and they don’t have to be made after the technology has created seemingly insurmountable problems or intrusions in our lives. The companies that make them should be having these discussions now, and we should be invited to share our opinions.

What do you think?


  1. http://wccftech.com/alexa-echo-calling-911/
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“At a certain point…”


A few weeks ago Brian Barrett of WIRED magazine reported on an “NEW SURVEILLANCE SYSTEM MAY LET COPS USE ALL OF THE CAMERAS.” According to the article,

“Computer scientists have created a way of letting law enforcement tap any camera that isn’t password protected so they can determine where to send help or how to respond to a crime.”

Barrett suggests that America has 30 million surveillance cameras out there. The above sentence, for me, is loaded. First of all, as with most technological advancements, they are always couched in the most benevolent form. These scientists are going to help law enforcement send help or respond to crimes. This is also the argument that the FBI used to try to force Apple to provide a backdoor to the iPhone. It was for the common good.

If you are like me, you immediately see a giant red flag waving to warn us of the gaping possibility for abuse. However, we can take heart to some extent. The sentence mentioned above also limits law enforcement access to, “any camera that isn’t password protected.” Now the question is: What percentage of the 30 million cameras are password protected? Does it include, for example, more than kennel cams or random weather cams? Does it include the local ATM, traffic, and other security cameras? The system is called CAM2.

“…CAM2 reveals the location and orientation of public network cameras, like the one outside your apartment.”

It can aggregate the cameras in a given area and allow law enforcement to access them. Hmm.

Last week I teased that some of the developments that I reserved for 25, 50 or even further into the future, through my graphic novel The Lightstream Chronicles, are showing signs of life in the next two or three years. A universal “cam” system like this is one of them; the idea of ubiquitous surveillance or the mesh only gets stronger with more cameras. Hence the idea behind my ubiquitous surveillance blog. If there is a system that can identify all of the “public network” cams, how far are we from identifying all of the “private network” cams? How long before these systems are hacked? Or, in the name of national security, how might these systems be appropriated? You may think this is the stuff of sci-fi, but it is also the stuff of design-fi, and design-fi, as I explained last week, is intended to make us think; about how these things play out.

In closing, WIRED’s Barrett raised the issue of the potential for abusing systems such as CAM2 with Gautam Hans, policy counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology. And, of course, we got the standard response:

“It’s not the best use of our time to rail against its existence. At a certain point, we need to figure out how to use it effectively, or at least with extensive oversight.”

Unfortunately, history has shown that that certain point usually arrives after something goes egregiously wrong. Then someone asks, “How could something like this happen?”

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An Experiment in Ubiquitous Surveillance


I just returned from the First International Conference on Anticipation in Trento, Italy. The conference was a multi-disciplinary gathering of scholars, practitioners, and thought leaders with the same concern: the future is happening faster than we could ever have imagined. The foundational principles of our disciplines that have anchored us since their inception are no longer sufficient to deal with a future that is increasingly unpredictable. The conference featured experts in economics, the environment, biology, architecture, city planning, design, future studies, foresight, political science, psychology, sociology, and anthropology just to name a few. Each has deep concerns about how to model the future of their disciplines and their relationships with the world around them when our existing frameworks no longer fit and complexity and technology are increasing exponentially.

I presented a paper as part of the Design and Anticipation panel entitled, Ubiquitous Surveillance: A Crowd-Sourced Design Fiction. I began by painting the landscape of change and borrowed (as I have often done in this blog) from Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns. He states that “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).” The uncertainty is compounded by the reality of technological convergence; the merging of cognitive science with genetics and nanotech or biotech, infotech, robotics, and artificial intelligence. All of these fields are racing toward breakthrough accomplishments. Of course, they cannot be isolated and so the picture changes, in a dynamic and unpredictable way. The reverberations will be sweeping. As I discussed in my paper, there is a natural compatibility between design and future studies, since, “…all design concerns itself with some future, preferably better, whether physical, environmental, or conceptual. Design is creative and iterative. So it is with futures.”

I explained the notion of design fiction as a hybrid of science fiction narrative, critical design, conventional design and foresight studies. The objective is to provoke interdisciplinary conversations and reflect on the significance of innovation for societies, governments, culture, and individuals. My methods include The Lightstream Chronicles and my newest area, guerrilla futures. In both cases the aim is,

“…to draw a larger circle for these conversations extending beyond academia, governmental inertia, and commercial influence. And to include those who will be affected most by these changes to lifestyle and behavior: the public-at-large.

In storytelling, the focus is on people and drama; there are interactions, and sometimes things go wrong. The fictional story becomes a way for us to anticipate conflict and complexity before it becomes a problem to be solved — a kind of thought problem to engage critical thinking. However, surrounding these issues with the expected, as utopian, or idealistic they risk losing force. Thus, for the story to have the potential of moving beyond merely an entertainment, the ideas must be disruptive enough for the individual to take pause.”

All of this is a lengthy set-up for my current experiment to generate discussion about the future: Ubiquitous Surveillance. The following is a direct lift from my presentation.

“Imagine if you will that the year is 2020. Political and commercial influences have convinced global society that not only our security, but our convenience and fulfillment will be enhanced via ubiquitous surveillance, e.g., cameras everywhere. Let us pull some plausible threads of existing technological advances: It is now possible to have cameras the size and thickness of a postage stamp. These PaperCams can be “posted” anywhere and are available to everyone for no fee. Once distributed, (ideally 1/3m3) imagery and location data is networked into a massive database. A smartphone app can locate and link to any PaperCam and allow users, positioned in front, to transmit a still or video image to anyone at any time from any place—no selfie required. GPS metadata verifies location and group photos take on a new significance. It is touted as both a communication convenience and a security benefit. Imagery can employ facial recognition, and predictive algorithms to identify criminal behavior, potential terrorist events, Cameras can be used to locate disaster, accident, crime victims or for emergency visual anywhere.

Cameras are always on. They do not require our permission. To mitigate the potential adverse reaction to an invasion of privacy, only computers/artificial intelligence (AI) evaluate the images to identify potential threats. The increasing mass of big data enables facial recognition, predictive algorithms for body language, gestures, sounds, voice analysis and other cues. The AI can observe situations and determine whether they are dangerous or benign. Since other humans are not seeing the imagery, personal moments are not in danger of being perniciously viewed and would not be logged unless the AI detects threatening behavior.

A global security corporation, VisibleFutureCorp., has been retained to monitor the cameras.”

Where will the camera show up next?
the cam card

If you want to jump into this future scenario, I have developed a do-it-yourself camera that you can print out, place around your environment, office, (every room in your home) so that it is impossible to go through the day without noticing one of the cameras watching you. After this experience, visit the VisibleFutureCorp. website and get a bit deeper into the experience and it’s believability. There is a link on that site to join in the conversation.

I hope you will try it out.

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