Government, Surveillance Technology & IoT



What is the sin­gle biggest obsta­cle to the Heli­um project, and the decen­tral­iza­tion of wire­less net­works, from LoRa to WiFi to cellular? 

It’s usage. It does­n’t mat­ter if you have an amaz­ing­ly robust net­work. It does­n’t mat­ter if you have com­mer­cial grade anten­nas, or nodes, or loca­tions. What mat­ters is that peo­ple use it.

So, the ques­tion is, what can you use the Heli­um Net­work for? As it turns out, damn near any­thing. You can track pack­ages, or pal­lets, or planes (use­ful if you’re FedEx). You can mon­i­tor the tem­per­a­ture of the soil at sev­en dif­fer­ent depths (use­ful if you’re a farmer). You can see how many peo­ple use a pub­lic trail (use­ful if you’re a park try­ing to under­stand what resources you’ll need).

Except on that last one, there’s a prob­lem. You see, col­lect­ing ANY kind of data is start­ing to real­ly scare local gov­ern­ments. They’re wor­ried about the use of what they call “sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies.” Now, Sur­veil­lance Tech­nol­o­gy (ST) sounds creepy and scary, and when used inap­pro­pri­ate­ly, it is. Of course, any­thing when used inap­pro­pri­ate­ly is, well, inap­pro­pri­ate. In this case, let’s think of “inap­pro­pri­ate” as some­thing that pierces the pri­va­cy veil of citizens. 

ST that is pri­va­cy-pierc­ing can be traf­fic cam­eras that snap pic­tures of peo­ple run­ning red lights. ST that is more ben­e­fi­cial and with lit­tle down­side can be acoustic mon­i­tors that alert police of when and where gun­shots are fired in a city. 

Benign ST might be the use of peo­ple coun­ters to mon­i­tor how much traf­fic a back­coun­try trail has. That’s where I stum­bled onto the idea of sur­veil­lance tech­nol­o­gy. I had writ­ten a grant to deploy peo­ple coun­ters on trails in San Diego. Part of the project is on pri­vate land and is used for tres­pass­ing mon­i­tor­ing, and part of the project was to be on pub­lic land, to help pub­lic offi­cials under­stand how much use their trails were getting.

Let’s start off with what a peo­ple counter is in this con­text. It’s a small device, small­er than a toast­er oven, that is mount­ed on the side of a trail. It sends out two very low pow­ered radar beam sig­nals, and when those sig­nals bounce back off a per­son, the device counts it. It uses two beams so it can count which direc­tion peo­ple are going; left to right, or right to left. 

Here’s one installed out in the yard:

What you’re look­ing at is benign sur­veil­lance tech­nol­o­gy. What you’re look­ing at freaked out the local gov­ern­ment of San Diego, where I live. Why? 

Here’s the con­ver­sa­tions so far (I’m para­phras­ing).

GK: Hey, I’m a local trail user and tech geek. I think there’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty to deploy some peo­ple coun­ters on the trail and pro­vide you sol­id data for how many folks use this trail. Explains what a peo­ple counter is. If I did all the work and pro­vid­ed the equip­ment for free, would you be open to that?
Park Ranger: Hmm, that sounds awe­some. What’s the catch?
GK: There’s not real­ly one. I’ll write a grant to cov­er fund­ing, I love being out­side and work­ing hard, and I think this is a cool net­work to use. I’ll write about it on my blog. The only thing I real­ly need is per­mis­sion to put these on pub­lic land.
Park Ranger: Wow. That’s cool, and we could use the data. Go ahead with it and keep me posted.

4 weeks lat­er, with grant writ­ten, funds dis­bursed and spent, and tech­nol­o­gy in hand ready to deploy.

GK: Hey, the units came in and I’m get­ting ’em prepped for deploy­ment, this is so excit­ing! Let’s set a date to meet up and con­firm where on the trail they’ll go, and when I can put ’em in.
Park Ranger: Um, hey, I talked to my boss and we’re doing our own project like this and are no longer inter­est­ed in this.
GK: Hmm, that’s odd. You’re doing your own project? Why did­n’t you tell me about this before I did all the work?
Park Ranger: Umm, I did­n’t know. My boss is a hard No on this. I’m sor­ry.
GK: Ok. May I talk with your boss about this?
Park Ranger: I’ll give him your num­ber and he’ll call you.

Boss nev­er calls.

So, that was weird, but I fig­ured it was mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion and real­ly my fault; I should have got­ten a writ­ten con­tract to deploy ’em before I started. 

No big deal”, I thought. I’ll just find anoth­er park where they’re not run­ning a peo­ple count­ing pro­gram and offer ’em the $12k worth of gear and my work for free. That seems like a good deal to me.

Calls up the largest city park in San Diego

GK: Hey, I’m a local trail user and tech geek. I think there’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty to get some peo­ple coun­ters on the trail and pro­vide you sol­id data for how many folks use this trail. I just got a grant to do this and have all the equip­ment on hand. Would you be inter­est­ed?
Local Park Ser­vice: Let me refer you to our head ranger.
Head Ranger: This sounds inter­est­ing, let me refer you to some­one who can help, a Nat­ur­al Resource Man­ag­er with the City of San Diego Parks & Rec depart­men­t’s Open Space Divi­sion.
Nat Res Mgr: (after hear­ing my spiel above) This sounds awe­some. We’ve done stuff like this before but the equip­ment is expen­sive, so if you’re pro­vid­ing that and the labor AND the data visu­al­iza­tion for free, I think this would be great. Let me dou­ble check with my biologist.

1 day later

Nat Res Mgr: I checked with my biol­o­gist and we’re both on board, we think this’ll be a great project. I’ll set up a meet­ing with my boss and our IT per­son to over it with you.
GK: Right on, look­ing for­ward to this. Accepts cal­en­dar invite.

4 hours later

Email from Nat Res Mgr:
I want­ed to thank you for bring­ing this oppor­tu­ni­ty to our atten­tion.  How­ev­er after inter­nal con­ver­sa­tions with our City IT staff we are no longer inter­est­ed in pur­su­ing this oppor­tu­ni­ty.

Ok, so that hit my “Some­thing’s weird about this” but­ton.

I mean, why would two dif­fer­ent peo­ple in sim­i­lar orga­ni­za­tions (Coun­ty and City Parks) have the same reac­tion after being so fired up at first? Then I found this arti­cle, which details that just a few days ear­li­er (on Tues­day, April 5th of 20220)

The San Diego City Coun­cil Tues­day estab­lished a Pri­va­cy Advi­so­ry Board to pro­tect res­i­dent and vis­i­tor pri­va­cy as the city pur­chas­es and uses sur­veil­lance equip­ment and oth­er tech­nol­o­gy that col­lects or stores indi­vid­ual data.

-Eliz­a­beth Ire­land, Times of San Diego

Then I got this email in my response to “What happened?”

The City is under­go­ing changes and revi­sions of sev­er­al ordi­nances that deal specif­i­cal­ly with the City’s acqui­si­tion and use of sur­veil­lance or oth­er tech­nolo­gies. At this time, Parks and Recre­ation will not be pur­su­ing new technologies.

-City of San Diego Parks and Recre­ation Department

So, uh, where does that leave us? 

Let’s arm our­selves with a lit­tle knowl­edge. I cruised over to the Amer­i­can Civ­il Lib­er­ties Unions site (a bas­tion of pro­tect­ing cit­i­zen’s rights here in the US), and on their Sur­veil­lance Tech­nol­o­gy page they have the fol­low­ing categories:

  • Big Data
  • Domes­tic Drones
  • Police Body Cameras
  • Stingray Track­ing Devices
  • Bio­met­rics
  • Face Recog­ni­tion Technology
  • RFID Chips
  • Video Sur­veil­lance

I went through all of those def­i­n­i­tions, and none of ’em include peo­ple count­ing devices. Nope, not even “Big Data”, which the ACLU defines as, “a term used to describe the col­lec­tion and aggre­ga­tion of enor­mous amounts of infor­ma­tion that can be processed and ana­lyzed only by pow­er­ful com­put­ers.

Let’s think about clas­si­fi­ca­tions of sur­veil­lance tech­nol­o­gy as far as how “pri­va­cy-inva­sive” they are. A cam­era with a GPS and a clock is pret­ty pri­va­cy-inva­sive. It shows WHO was WHERE, and WHEN. The WHO is the prob­lem there; hav­ing a cam­era takes away some­one’s privacy. 

A soil mois­ture sen­sor is on the oth­er end of the spec­trum; it shows WHAT hap­pened, WHERE, and WHEN. There’s no WHO, so even if you decid­ed to pee on a soil mois­ture sen­sor, no one would know who did it. 

What about peo­ple coun­ters? Why are they a prob­lem? I had the same ques­tion. From my per­spec­tive, there’s not a pri­va­cy issue. The sen­sor can’t tell WHO passed by. It does­n’t note a per­son­’s age, gen­der, col­or, race, weight, gait, or any oth­er iden­ti­fi­able char­ac­ter­is­tic. It just says, “Yep, I’m pret­ty sure a human passed here. It was­n’t a car. It was­n’t a deer. It was­n’t a jump­ing rac­coon. It was a human.”

Now, I’ll make clear here: This isn’t the fault of the Parks and Recre­ation Depart­ment of San Diego; they’re just being cau­tious and fol­low­ing gov­ern­ment rules. What this does is bring up a real­ly inter­est­ing issue: 

How can local gov­ern­ments under­stand the nuances of tech­nol­o­gy so they don’t get left behind when it comes to use­ful data?

I mean, we Heli­um peeps are out on the bleed­ing edge of tech; we’re co-cre­at­ing the largest and fastest deployed wire­less net­work the world has ever seen. To us, rapid deploy­ment of new tech­nol­o­gy is use­ful and pret­ty nor­mal. With­in the last year and a half, many of us went from hav­ing nev­er done more than change the chan­nel on our tele­vi­sion to deploy­ing remote off grid solar pow­ered IoT LoRaWAN devices with cell back­haul. That’s quite a jump.

So, what can YOU do? The same thing I’m going to do: Offer to edu­cate local offi­cials, find oth­er local gov­ern­ments who are will­ing to embrace tech­nol­o­gy, and help present a new and dif­fer­ent view of tech­nol­o­gy to any­one curi­ous about the com­ing tsuna­mi of IoT devices. 

If you have oth­er ways to help, I’m wide open to hear­ing ’em. If you’re a gov­ern­ment offi­cial or employ­ee who wants help under­stand­ing this whole IoT and sur­veil­lance tech­nol­o­gy issue, or you want to use the pro-pri­va­cy tech­nol­o­gy I’m deploy­ing to improve your land man­age­ment deci­sions, please reach out. Togeth­er we can learn to build a rad world that col­lects use­ful data and puts it into ben­e­fi­cial ser­vice for all of us.

Rock on!


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