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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