February 11, 2014. The Day To Fight Back Against NSA Surveillance
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Google Patents Include Capabilities To Automatically Collect And Send Your Videos To Law Enforcement

NSA Android logo Last month, Google applied for two U.S. patents containing technologies to automatically identify, catalog, and track videos you upload about any trending event. The first patent application, "Inferring Events Based Upon Mob Sourced Video," included the following description:

"Methods and systems are disclosed for inferring that an event of interest (e.g., a public gathering, a performance, an accident, etc.) has likely occurred. In particular, when there are at least a given number of video clips with similar timestamps and geolocation stamps uploaded to a repository, it is inferred that an event of interest has likely occurred, and a notification signal is transmitted (e.g., to a law enforcement agency, to a news organization, to a publisher of a periodical, to a public blog, etc.)."

Department of Justice logo Note that "a law enforcement agency" is specifically mentioned. That could include local police for your city, or one of the federal agencies (e.g., FBI, NSA, DEA, ATF, etc.). The "mob" reference does not mean organized crime, but instead means videos uploaded by several consumers... regular, innocent people like you and I that probably aren't doing anything illegal except attending a public event. The "repository" could be any single or multiple social networking sites (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.).

The patent collects and monitors videos based upon metadata in the videos that meet the search criteria set by the organization doing the tracking:

"In one embodiment, a computer system pre-processes existing video clips in a video clip repository by defining groups of "related" video clips, based on the timestamps and geolocation stamps of the video clips. When there is a group whose size (i.e., the number of video clips in the group) meets or exceeds a size threshold, the computer system transmits a notification to one or more recipients (e.g., a news organization, etc.) that an event of interest likely occurred at the indicated time and geolocation. In one such embodiment, the computer system also determines the particular recipient(s) of the notification based on the geolocation of the event (e.g., an event in Manhattan might be transmitted to NYC Police and Channel 7 New York, etc.), the time of the event (e.g., an event at 3:00 am might go to the police but not a television station)... In one embodiment, after the repository has been processed, the computer system monitors video clips that are newly-uploaded to the repository and, based on their timestamps and geolocation stamps, adds the newly-uploaded video clips to existing groups, or creates new groups. When a video clip is added to a group and the size of the group has reached, for the first time, the size threshold, the computer system transmits one or more notifications, as described above."

The second patent application, "Mob Source Video Collaboration," includes this description:

"In an embodiment of the present invention, a computer system determines that a set of two or more video clips are of the same event (e.g., a wedding, a sports event, an everyday scene, etc.) when the timestamps and geolocation stamps match, within suitable thresholds. For example, if two video clips have respective timestamps of 2:03-3:05 pm and 2:01-2:56 pm and their geo-location stamps are within 20 meters of each other, then the computer system might identify the two video clips as being of the same event... In one embodiment, a computer system pre-processes the existing video clips in a video clip repository by identifying, based on timestamps and geolocation stamps, video clips that are "related" to one another (i.e., that are of the same event). The computer system then sends a message to each author of a video clip in the repository, inquiring whether the author grants permission to: notify the authors of related video clips of the existence of the video clip, and notify followers of these authors of the existence of the video clip. For example, if Mary Jones has uploaded a video clip of his brother John's wedding to a video clip repository, Mary will receive a message that inquires whether she gives permission to notify the authors of other video clips of John Jones' wedding (e.g., Mary's cousin Betty, etc.) of the existence of her video clip, as well as whether she gives permission for followers of these other authors to also be notified of the existence of the video clip."

So, the technologies in the patents would allow organization to follow videos about breaking events as they happen, as you follow people today within social networking sites. The technologies would also notify you of others who recorded video of the same event, and facilitate connecting with them. Phandroid reported:

"The exact details of this system – if put into practice – would likely be buried deep in a Terms of Service document. We’re guessing the most effective solution (for Google) would be collect aggregate and anonymous data to which you opted-in (time and location data of multimedia), extrapolating that data to identify “mob source” events, and then sharing related, publicly available multimedia to 3rd parties. This could be used in any of the typical “nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd” scenario, from bar fights and car accidents to flash mobs..."

If you aren't aware, your mobile devices automatically attach geolocation data (e.g., GPS coordinates) to every photo and video you take; unless you turn off the GPS feature. Most people don't turn off the GPS feature with their smartphone's camera because other apps (e.g., maps, travel directions, shopping, etc.) use the GPS feature. The geolocation and timestamps data are part of the metadata attached to your photos and videos; data that social networking sites are eager to use.

The technologies in these patent could be helpful to collect videos about a specific event. Many people create event pages on social networking sites. The patents could make it easier for event organizers to collect video about their event. That's the positive. The negative: the technologies could also be used to invade consumers' privacy.

After reading these patent applications, several things came to mind. First, while the patents mentioned harmless applications (e.g., weddings, performances, auto accidents, etc.), this is anything but. It is all about law enforcement. During and after the Marathon bombings in April 2013, law enforcement had difficulty collecting, and then sorting through, the mountain of consumer-produced videos and photographs. The technologies in these two patents would solve those problems. Plus, Google operating system software already contains NSA code. Google seems quite content to pursue technologies to facilitate surveillance.

Second, I found the "mob" description troubling. It implies something negative, when the terms "group-sourced" or "crowd-sourced" could have been easily used instead. I guess that in the surveillance state, everyone is a potential threat whether you have done something illegal or not.

Third, the patents don't really solve a consumer problem. Unless you are new to the Internet and social networking sites, you are already connected to the people you want to follow; and the content your connections produce. For a wedding, the couple has already invited the people they want to attend via registrations at gift or event sites.

Fourth, the technologies in these patents probably represent the next step of the tracking technology. We consumers have already experienced facial recognition in social networking websites. The goal has been to identify people and locations in photographs. Now, the goal is to identify people and places in videos. Fifth, neither patent mentions minors and how the video targeting and cataloging technologies won't run afoul of FTC rules about the collection of data about minor children.

Think about this the next time you record videos at a public event: concert, sports game, group activity (e.g., bicycling, swim or track meet, etc.), vacation, school outing to a museum, dinner in a restaurant with friends or classmates, and/or a public demonstration or protest. You are at the event enjoying it and minding your own business. yet, the videos you upload are potentially considered part of some "mob" action.

Does that sound right to you? Not to me.

Many flash mobs were harmless, fun events such as dancing, couples dancing, and marriage proposals. It is also important to emphasize the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (emphasis added):

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Nobody wants a new technology to intimidate or hinder the rights of citizens to assemble peaceably.

Want some privacy online? It's getting more and more difficult. Turn off the GPS feature for the camera in your mobile device when taking photographs and videos. Be careful about what video you upload to social networking Web sites. Make your privacy settings "friends only" for videos you post on social networking sites.

What are your opinions of the two patents?


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These patents are not surprising in an country where internet privacy continues to be a growing concern. Consumers should simply assume that any digital information submitted carries a risk of being recorded and collected without their consent or acknowledgement.

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