Coming soon: Ubiquitous surveillance from Big Brother's wayback machine

Storage, search technology will enable surveillance on suspects before they became suspects

As the price of digital storage drops and the technology to tap electronic communication improves, authoritarian governments will soon be able to perform retroactive surveillance on anyone within their borders, according to a Brookings Institute report.

These regimes will store every phone call, instant message, email, social media interaction, text message, movements of people and vehicles and public surveillance video and mine it at their leisure, according to "Recording Everything: Digital Storage as an Enabler of Authoritarian Government," written by John Villaseno, a senior fellow at Brookings and a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA.

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That will enable shadowing people's movements and communications that took place before the individuals became suspects, he says.

"For example, if an anti-regime demonstrator previously unknown to security services is arrested, it will be possible to go back in time to scrutinize the demonstrator's phone conversations, automobile travels, and the people he or she met in the months and even years leading up to the arrest," the report says.

"These enormous databases of captured information will create what amounts to a surveillance time machine. ... This will fundamentally change the dynamics of dissent, insurgency and revolution," the report says.

Villaseno draws on knowledge gained from recent overthrows of such authoritarian regimes to support his argument that such a scenario is not just possible but likely. He notes that when the government of Libya fell, insurgents found equipment that had captured 30 million to 40 million minutes of phone conversations per month and enabled the government to read activist emails. There have been reports that the government of Syria wants to build communications intercepts as well, he says.

The report notes that technologies needed to capture, store and analyze these mountains of data are built for legitimate business purposes by reputable vendors, citing Blue Coat, Cisco, Huawei, NetApp, Qosmos (France) and Utimaco (Germany).

Noting that an iPod classic can store up to 40,000 songs, 200 hours of video or 25,000 photos, Villaseno concludes that ubiquitous surveillance will eventually crop up. "When that much information can be held in the palm of a hand, the prospect that an authoritarian government could archive the entire life of a nation no longer seems impossible. Declining storage costs will make such monitoring not only possible, but likely," the report says.

Key to this possibility is the dramatic drop in the cost of storage, which cost $85,000 per gigabyte in 1984 and costs 5 cents per gigabyte today.

The storage needed for different types of data varies widely. Data to pinpoint a location within 15 feet takes up 75 bits. Storing that data for 1 million people taken at five-minute intervals for a year would take up less than a terabyte and cost a bit more than $50.

In 2015 the cost of storing all the phone calls made in a year by an average person will be less than 2 cents, the report says. By 2020, the cost to store all the phone calls made by everyone over the age of 14 in Iran will be about $100,000, the report says.

Villaseno points to a 24-hour video surveillance program in China that will put 500,000 video cameras throughout the city of Chongquing. By 2020, all that video could be stored for 25 cents per Chongquing resident per year.

Total costs of surveillance -- gathering, aggregating, managing, analyzing -- will be greater, but as Big Data becomes a reality, tools for handling it will become better and cheaper. "[T]he problem of managing large data sets occurs in many contexts, not just in the surveillance of people in authoritarian countries," the report says. "Many of the solutions that are being developed in the commercial world for searching and analyzing data could be applied to state-sponsored surveillance as well."

Future uprisings like those recently against governments in Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Egypt and Iran will become less likely against regimes that can monitor and modify an entire nation's communications in near-real time, Villaseno says. "Awareness of the likelihood that all messages -- including those that are encrypted -- will eventually be read by security services will chill dissent," he says.

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