If you're suffering from Snowden-fatigue, tired of the seemingly neverending series of NSA and GCHQ revelations, don't worry, because a new surveillance threat is on the horizon.
FirstNet—pitched as a state of the art communications network for paramedics, firemen and law enforcement at the federal, state and local level—will give cops on the streets unprecedented technological powers, and possibly hand over even more intimate data about our lives to the higher ends of the government and its intelligence agencies. The system has already been tested in a handful of states, and 2014 will likely see it rolled out further.
According to a series of presentation slides from December last year, FirstNet will be the “MOST secure wireless network ever built,” sitting entirely separate from the commercially run networks that everyone, including first responders, uses today. This will give FirstNet greater reliability in situations where networks come under extreme pressure, such as when tens of thousands of people contact loved ones during a terrorist attack or natural disaster. It makes sense to have a dedicated network just for first responders during these sorts of events.
Thanks to the network being based on the super-fast 4G protocol, it will also allow for a new wave of novel technology. One application is that after 'tagging' a disaster victim with a small device, patients' vital signs can be monitored from a control centre, allowing medical staff to keep an eye on who needs treatment the most at any one time.
But FirstNet will also give local law enforcement the ability to take digital “fingerprints from the field,” record and share highquality video, and instantaneously marry these freshly sourced data with others over the network. In the video above, a demonstrator uses facial recognition software on a tablet; finds out if the target is in a linked database, and is immediately provided with a wealth of information on him.
Of course, having a police officer be able to instantly identify you with a tablet —or the “single […] device for voice, data, and video” being developed—is open to abuse, and raises serious worries for privacy. When it comes to new technologies such as facial recognition, there really are no meaningful protections in place. Carly Nyst from Privacy International agrees: “Without clear and strict regulation of the use of facial recognition and fingerprint technology, it is very difficult to ensure that individuals' privacy will be protected,” she told me.
Nyst was also worried about “mission creep,” where we could see “the use of such technologies away from serious crime detection, and instead towards basic policing (using it to track down traffic rules violators, for example); use by local authorities (for parking tickets and other fines); and even use by taxation authorities to identify evaders.”
A “large number of RFIs” (requests for information) to prospective companies that may be interested in developing the technology have already been sent out, and nowhere in the list of questions is there anything that resembles a query as to how technology companies will protect the privacy of those on the receiving end of their products.
However, these uses of FirstNet—biometric data gathering, license plate readers and high speed information sharing—are only the things that we are sure are going to be implemented. They are explicit aims of the project, as laid out in presentations and other documents.
Kade Crockford, from the American Civil Liberties Union, told me about its much wider range of possible applications. “It's not so much the technology, as it is the system linking all of these pieces of technology together,” she pointed out.
There is the possibility that this will create a new means for federal government to harvest massive quantities of the biometric data being collected by local agencies. Kade envisages that “the FBI, for example, can tap into the FirstNet of a state or local police department, and have access to all sorts of their data, immediately.”
One scary thought is that it could help set up what Kade describes as a “communications systems apartheid”: where the public are relegated to an “insecure, heavily monitored network that can be turned off at the flick of a switch,” while the government enjoys the benefits of an encrypted network that is far more stable. This lays out the possibility of the civilian network being shut off while law enforcement's communications remain unaffected.
Before you brush this off as tinfoil-hat nonsense, severing access to communications in the US is not unheard of. A kill switch was deployed in San Francisco in 2011, when officials cut off all local telecommunications and data transfer capabilities in order to stop a protest of a homeless man's murder.
In fact, the legal framework for such a move in the US already exists in the Standard Operating Procedure 303, allowing the shut down of “commercial and private wireless networks in the event of a national crisis.” Although such a protocol definitely exists, a bombardment of Freedom of Information Act requests to the Department of Homeland Security have revealed few specific details about how such a kill switch would operate.
Since so much of its development is being conducted in secret, it is near impossible to determine exactly the outer limits of FirstNet.
When I asked Kade what her response would be to that tiresome argument of "If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear," she said that question should be “directed towards the Department of Justice.”
Although those behind FirstNet are currently getting individual states ready for consultation periods on the project, it is already being tested in various locales, including California, North Carolina, New Mexico, Colorado, Mississippi and New Jersey. When POLITICO tried to get documents relating to FirstNet's development from one of these areas' respective Sheriff Departments, the Department of Justice—in an unusual move—stepped in, and stopped any details being released by them. “For some reason, the DOJ is really, really opposed to the public having access to timely and accurate information about how this thing is actually being rolled out,” Kade continued.
Exacerbating this further is the fact some documents, and in particular financial records of the $7 billion project, have been withheld from select members of the FirstNet board, and some have been barred from meetings. After an internal investigation, a subsequent report found that “these biweekly sessions informed later public debate.”
But are these investigations and reviews really enough to silence worries around the clandestine nature of the project? The debate around the balance “between protecting individual privacy and the power of the authorities to pursue crime as they see fit are public questions that need to be decided democratically,” Jay Stanley, a Senior Policy Analyst also from ACLU told me. “It's important that new tools not be developed or rolled out in secret, but done through a very public process.”
There are concerns that some of those on the 15-member board of FirstNet are more focused on the commercial side of things, instead of building the network with public safety in mind. Some of the members have decorated careers with major wireless and telecommuncations companies. Sam Ginn, FirstNet's Chair, is a former CEO of Airtouch and Chairman for Vodafone, and he has appointed Sue Swenson, a past employee of Sarge Software, T-Mobile and Leap Wireless International, as his Vice Chairman.
This has caused one board member, Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald, to state that the project is being “developed largely by consultants,” although his protests have died down recently and he has refused to share the further evidence he has obtained. When I approached him for comment on this story, I was directed towards the main FirstNet media department, which also declined to provide any more details.
Importantly, these vested interests can have real effects on the public benefit of FirstNet. “The tightly interwoven role of contractors in programmes like these just adds to the political strength for increasing surveillance, and makes it harder to defend the broad public interest,” Jay continued.
As for the contractors definitely involved, Alcatel Lucent have previously designed surveillance monitoring centres used in Tunisia, which they still provide assistance to, and installed fibreoptic cables for the Turkmenistan government. Considering their past contract history and the fact that their only alliance is to their shareholders rather than public safety, it is unsettling that such a company is so intimately involved with FirstNet. And if it is private companies handling our biometric data, beyond the checks and balances of democratic processes, this only worsens the privacy worries around FirstNet.
Until its development becomes more transparent, and the “strained relationships” between board members' public dedications and commercial interests (which the project's leader has even admitted exist) are addressed, FirstNet should be high on everyone's surveillance radar.