We the People are the Watchers

Source Code

Open source software is ubiquitous throughout the Internet today. It is “source code” – the libraries and routines used by software programmers – that is available for anyone to use or modify.

Christine Peterson, VP of the Foresight Institute, coined the term “open source” in the late 1990s. She now proposes that this concept of peer-based collaboration and sharing can be applied to another emerging technology – sensors.



“The intent of the project is to take advantage of advances in sensing to improve both security and the environment, while preserving — even strengthening — privacy, freedom, and civil liberties,” says Peterson in a recent press release.

h+ Magazine spoke with Ms. Peterson about this open-source style project, known as the Open Source Sensing initiative.

“The principles we are trying to establish should apply across the board to all sensing technologies,” she says. “Maybe in the long term we will try to track all emerging sensing technologies, but for now we have our hands full with current sensing methods. That is where we need to start.”

Peterson presented her original vision at OSCON, the Open Source Convention, in 2008. Here’s a video of that presentation:

Sensing technologies such as Radioactive Threat Detection (RTD) can detect both neutrons (nuclear WMD) and gamma rays (dirty bombs) during routine X-ray inspections. Environmental sensors protect the public and the environment from toxic contaminants and pathogens that can be released into various environmental carriers including air, soil, and water.

Sensing — particularly when used for surveillance — has a dark side. A recent House of Lords report on the widespread use of CCTV in Britain underscores that surveillance can undermine basic liberties. The UK Guardian reported, “The steady expansion of the ‘surveillance society’ risks undermining fundamental freedoms including the right to privacy.”

George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty Four, is famous for its depiction of pervasive government surveillance and control, and the government’s increasing intrusion on the rights of the individual. Ironically — perhaps not unlike CCTV — Orwell’s prescient vision describes two-way television (the telescreen). Big Brother is watching you.

“Cheap, ubiquitous sensing has the potential to turn the worlds of privacy and civil rights upside-down,” says Brad Templeton, a futurist and civil rights activist who chairs the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Radiation - Photo provided by h+

In the U.S., we find the gathering of electronic evidence to investigate suspected terrorists using warrantless wiretapping. It was recently announced that a federal judge in San Francisco has thrown out more than 30 lawsuits against AT&T and other phone companies. The suits claimed the telecoms illegally cooperated with the Bush administration’s anti-terrorist surveillance program.

This is an ongoing surveillance and civil rights issue. In a recent brief, the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) alleges that in order to get around wiretapping’s "probable cause" requirements, the Department of Justice ordered a suspect’s Internet Service Provider (ISP) to start accumulating his emails so that they could later come in and use the Stored Communications Act to subpoena the archive. According to the EFF, the Justice Department “sometimes has trouble telling the difference between a subpoena of ‘stored communications’ and warrantless wiretapping.” The EFF brief essentially accuses the Justice Department of “backdoor wiretapping.”

h+ Magazine asked Peterson about the potential need for sensing legislation. “There is a basic question of whether citizens have a ‘right to sense,’ or can we only own and use sensors that the government permits. It’s not a simple question, but I believe we need to clarify this right.”

Cheap ubiquitous sensing has the potential to turn the worlds of privacy and civil rights upside-down

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory is building an incident management system for near-real-time information to emergency management decision makers and first responders. Known as SensorNet®, it provides, “a comprehensive incident management system for the near-real-time detection, identification, and assessment of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive (CBRNE) threats.”  Eventually, nanotechnology may be added to the list.

Speaking to this “top-down” government-driven approach, Templeton said, “It often results in keeping rules and procedures secret. A classic example is Transportation (TSA) agents at the airport. We can’t see all their rules and procedures because it would help the bad guys to get through.”

In contrast, a “bottom-up,” decentralized, open source approach to sensing and defense is one in which –- when it does not jeopardize the public  –- “everyone can see the rules to the sensing approach. You know what the enemy knows and have a chance to fix it.”

Peterson clarifies, “Both environmental and security uses of sensors are intrinsically bottom-up in terms of the data-gathering process. By doing that gathering thoughtfully, we can get the data we need without infringing on individual rights.”

Polution - Image provided by h+

Sousveillance (or inverse surveillance) is a term coined by Steve Mann to describe the bottom-up recording of an activity from the perspective of a participant in the activity. This is a way of taking “surveillance” to the people using portable or wearable recording devices that can stream continuous live video to the Internet. People, rather than governments, become the watchers. “It’s not enough for governments to watch people; people have to watch governments,”says Templeton. “We’re not getting access to what’s going on. Technology can allow the public to watch what’s going on.” In other words, sousveillance is surveillance from underneath (this is the meaning of the French word ‘sous’).

Templeton continues: “No easy solution stands out, but the quest for an answer to these problems — by learning from the bottom-up approaches of the open source community — may provide some water in the desert.”

Peterson adds, “In the long term, open source defensive technologies will likely be the only ones capable of keeping up with rapidly-advancing offensive technologies, just as open source software is faster at addressing computer viruses today.”

Participation in the Open Source Sensing initiative is welcome from individuals and organizations, both non-profit and for-profit. The project is coordinated by Foresight Institute, a non-profit 501(c)3 organization focused on transformative technologies.

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