‘Wake Up and Smell the Unrest’: Experts Say ‘TrapWire’ Surveillance Overhyped But It Raises Important Civil Liberties Issues
Recent doomsday reports alluding to an extensive government spying network and a fictional scenario in which domestic insurrection was crushed by the military have created a wealth of media hype and speculation, but they also raise valid questions of how to address these civil liberties issues before they become a reality.
Experts are saying the advanced surveillance systems revealed recently by Wikileaks isn’t quite as pervasive as reports might have you believe — yet. And an extremist uprising scenario posed by the Small Wars Journal is merely a work of fiction — for now. Still, both are possibilities that these experts say should be taken seriously and evaluated in terms of the philosophical and legal challenges that technological advances will present for the government and law enforcement.
The debate was stoked recently by the Small Wars Journal with a report on July 25 assessing how the U.S. may need to prepare for domestic challenges such as “extremist militia motivated by the goals of the ‘tea party’ movement” taking over a South Carolina town, requiring military intervention to quash the uprising. The scaremongering continued last week with a report by Wikileaks, claiming to have the scoop on “Trapwire” — an extensive system of surveillance software — complete with allegedly leaked emails that could lead one to believe the government had access to a host of spying cameras across the nation.
But just how concerned should you be about TrapWire’s facial recognition technology and the potential for Big Brother recording your every move? TheBlaze spoke with technology and military experts about TrapWire and the feasibility of surveillance technology such as this monitoring to the extent that has been speculated.
As a bit of background, Friday afternoon, TheBlaze reported Wikileaks had unleashed news of a surveillance program that used equipment “more accurate than modern facial recognition technology.” This technology by the Virginia-based company TrapWire is meant to track suspicious activity at high-profile locations, which range from military bases to the White House to casinos and hotels in Las Vegas. The emails and several media reports allege that through this technology the “U.S. government is secretly spying on everyone,” as the Daily Mail put it.
A screenshot of the Virginia-based company TrapWire's website.
Scot MacTaggart, the regional director of PSX, Inc., who heads up security engineering for the property surveillance company, said he considers the emails regarding TrapWire’s technology overhyped “marketing-speak.” MacTaggart said facial recognition technology is still largely a failure that is only 60-7o percent accurate. This lack of accuracy, he said, is not good enough for serious applications of the technology.
“I find it hard to believe they could radically improve the facial recognition technology,” MacTaggart said, citing the fact that the idea has been around for decades and still isn’t being used in many applications.
He also noted the extreme bandwidth that would be needed to transfer the large amount of data picked up by the cameras and the need for a “tremendous” data center to store it. Ray Cavanagh, a vice president for the firm Crescent Guardian, Inc., expressed similar thoughts and said managing the amount of data would be “unfathomable.”
“Where would a respository of data like this sit?” Cavanagh said, also noting that he too considered facial recognition software still in its infancy. “Even if there were one, it would have to be updated continually.”
Dan Stynchula, a consultant for AEgis Technology Group, also said that he realizes the facial recognition technology isn’t perfect, but he believes the data center to house this information could very well be one owned by the government.
A data center large enough to store all this, Stynchula speculates is the one under construction by the National Security Agency in Utah. Although he acknowledges this is assumptive, he calls it an “informed hypothetical.”
Where does Stynchula think storage of this information could lead?
“A system like this could generate a large stream of revenue,” he said, pointing out that constant surveillance could record a variety of offenses, identify the person via facial recognition and send them a fine in the mail. But looking down the road, the infrastructure set up to monitor people becomes more disconcerting, Stynchula said, when you think of changing views toward protection of civil liberties. He noted that with centers storing this data, it could open the door for retrospective prosecution.
On the other hand, Cavanagh said for those who are concerned about privacy from surveillance technology, “I would ask them if they’ve ever shopped online.” He points out that people were concerned about privacy with regard to online shopping as well but now many use it.
“People need to recognize that technology is not the evil here,” Cavanagh said. “Can technology be used for evil purposes? Of course. Technology is not inherently evil though. We need to look at how we can harness it to make the world a better place.”
Overall, Stynchula said these reports at least serve the purpose of starting the conversation in society.
“Where do we as a society want to draw the line?” Stynchula questioned. “What will we allow these agencies to do outside the Constitution?”
With regard to the fictional scenario of extremists taking over in South Carolina, this was presented in an article published in the well-respected Small Wars Journal titled “Full Spectrum Operations in the Homeland: A ‘Vision’ of the Future.” The authors are retired Army Col. Kevin Benson of the Army’s University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and Jennifer Weber, a Civil War expert at the University of Kansas.
The article imagines a extreme members of the Tea Party taking control of Darlington, S.C. in May 2016, “occupying City Hall, disbanding the city council and placing the mayor under house arrest.” The rebels also set up checkpoints on Interstate 95 and Interstate 20 patrolling for people in the United States illegally.
Sill, combining this fictional scenario with the recent leak regarding TrapWire, the government having a network in place to sense civil unrest before a situation like this were to take place seems to go hand-in-hand.
Brandon Webb who operates the website SOFREP (the Special Operations Forces Report) and is a former Navy SEAL told TheBlaze setting up systems like this to thwart terrorist attacks are a valid necessity, provided “strict privacy laws that prohibit the unauthorized spying on American citizens” are followed.
In terms of a civil uprising, here’s what Webb wrote:
I think that there is a legitimate concern that an “Occupy” type of movement could gain serious traction and there are some in government who worry that it will not be quite as peaceful. The article in the Small Wars Journal titled “Full Spectrum Operations in the Homeland: A ‘Vision’ of the Future.” talks about civilian insurrection and a military response. This is very troubling to hear as a citizen and veteran who has served in combat to protect civil liberties. Especially concerning is that SOFREP has received and confirmed anonymous reports that the U.S. Military and Private Military Companies (PMC’s) were used offensively during the Katrina disaster and riots. This is unacceptable in my view.
He continued saying that while the government “needs to wake up and smell the unrest,” it needs to look at why people are unhappy and start taking care of people’s concerns.” He said, if “we ignore this too long … we’ll have our own version of the Arab Spring, albeit a more peaceful “Tea Party version, I imagine.”
TheBlaze’s Jason Howerton contributed to this report.
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