THE BLOG
01/23/2013 12:45 pm ET | Updated Mar 25, 2013

The Big Eye Is Not in the Sky

New York City is installing a system that will track people 24/7, using thousands of closed-circuit televisions (CCTVs), radiation and license plate readers, and other technologies. If it works as promised, Microsoft -- which is developing the software -- stands by to sell it to your city. The invasion of privacy is much greater than anything we have seen so far. You can see this by comparing what any one CCTV or a license reader tracks, to the new Domain Awareness System (the name of the new system just installed in New York City) does.

A typical CCTV, mounted on a bank, office building or residential unit, "sees" who was at a given place at one point in time. A license reader will "know" that your car was at a given intersection at this or that second. These surveillance technologies typically lose this information after a few days. One cannot draw a profile from such instruments that will reveal much about a person beyond a single act. It may tell that you were at a bar at 3 p.m. when you were supposed to be at work, but typically only to the bartender. It may record that you were at Victoria's Secret when you told you wife you are going to walk the dog, but that is as rule as far as it goes.

In contrast, the new NYC system, which should be renamed the Big Eye, makes a comprehensive profile of you, by -- as its advocates boast -- connecting the dots. It combines the information from thousands of different places and instruments, from all over the city. Thus, it can readily tell all the bars you have been to; how many times you been to Victoria's Secret -- and where you went with a package in hand from there; which residence you left a few hours later without your package, and so and on. The Big Eye can readily do the same for which political party election HQ you visited, where you prayed, and whom you met with. There is very little you do out of doors 24/7 that it cannot find out and the information it garners is kept in its archives for at least 30 days. (When a lawmaker sought to find out how much a cell phone tracking service alone revealed about him, he found out that it tracked him in nearly 36,000 locations over six months ). All this is before face recognition is added to the technological bag the Big Eye is dipping into, a technology now being perfected by Facebook. NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly calls the Big Eye a "transformative tool." For once, he was hardly overstating the reach of the new super duper surveillance system.

I am far from a privacy zealot. In a book called The Limits of Privacy, I try to show that our right to privacy needs to be balanced with other concerns. For instance, I argue that we should violate the privacy of a mother if this allows us to save the life of a baby (this entails informing her -- and the health care personnel -- that she is HIV-positive, and hence ought not to breast-feed the baby and give it AZT). Surely preventing a terrorist attack justifies some invasions of privacy. For instance, allowing for computers to screen billions of messages, looking for suspicious patterns, without getting a search warrant for each such screening.

Still, the Big Eye worries me. I trying to reconcile the fact that it obviously makes it much easier to catch criminals and terrorists with the fact that it leaves all of us constantly watched while we are out of doors. (Actually, given that CCTVs are also omnipresent inside many buildings, there is little room for privacy breaks, even within many four walls). I concluded that the best way to proceed is to find ways to ensure that the Big Eye (and its archives) is only used for legitimate purposes and not, say, for tracking political dissidents, people planning to demonstrate, or to engage in civil disobedience.

As I see it if the government is to gain so much more power, we need new and more effective ways to hold it accountable for how it uses this power. Oversight by the legislature may well not suffice, as it is often preoccupied with other concerns and tends to shy away from limiting programs supported by big corporations the likes of Microsoft. Hence, I suggest that much would be gained if we would have, in every city that introduces the Big Eye, a civilian privacy review board, to be composed of the deans of the major law schools in the city. The board would review the ways the Big Eye is employed and issue an annual report to the public, the city council, and state legislature.

Sure, one can come up with additional review and oversight devices. In any case, there may be no way to stop Big Eye from your sky -- but at least we should be able to keep an eye on it.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University and author of Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human Rights World, published by Transaction.