Geographical Rights Management, Mesh based Surveillance, Trickle-Down and Over-Reach

Every so often there’s a flurry of hype around the “internet of things”, but in many respects it’s already here – and has been for several decades. I remember as a kind being intrigued by some technical documents describing some telemetry system or other that remote water treatment plants used to transmit status information back to base. And I vaguely remember from a Maplin magazine around the time an article or two about what equipment you needed to listen in on, and decode, the radio chatter of all manner of telemetry systems.

Perhaps the difference now is a matter of scale – it’s easier to connect to the network, comms are bidirectional (you can receive as well as transmit information), and with code you can effect change on receipt of a message. The tight linkage between software and hardware – bits controlling atoms – also means that we can start to treat more and more things as “plant” whose behaviour we can remotely monitor, and govern.

A good example of how physical, consumer devices can already be controlled – or at least, disabled – by a remote operator is described in a New York Times article that crossed my wires last week, Miss a Payment? Good Luck Moving That Car, which describes how “many subprime borrowers [… in the US] must have their car outfitted with a so-called starter interrupt device, which allows lenders to remotely disable the ignition. Using the GPS technology on the devices, the lenders can also track the cars’ location and movements.” As the loan payment due date looms, it seems that some devices also emit helpful beeps to remind you…. And if your car loan agreement stipulates you’ll only drive within a particular area, I imagine that you could find it’s been geofenced. (A geofence is geographical boundary line that can be used to detect whether a GPS tracked device has passed into, or exited from, a particular region. When used to disable a device that leaves – or enters – a particular area, as for example drones flying into downtown Washington, we might consider it a form “location based management” (or “geographical rights management (GRM)”?!) that can disable activity in a particular location where someone who claims to control use of that device in that space actually exerts their control. (Think: DRM for location…))

One of the major providers “starter interrupt devices” is a company called PassTime (product list). Their products include:

  • PassTime Plus, the core of their “automated collection technology”.
  • Trax: “PassTime TRAX is the entry level GPS tracking product”. Includes: Pin point GPS location service, Up to Six (6) simultaneous Geo-fences.
  • PassTime GPS: “provides asset protection at an economical price while utilizing the same hardware and software platform of PassTime’s Elite Pro line of products. GPS tracking and remote vehicle disable features offer customers tools for a swift recovery if needed.” Includes: Pin point GPS location service, Remote vehicle disable option, Tow-Detect Notification, Device Tamper Notification, Up to Six (6) simultaneous Geo-fences, 24-Hour Tracking, Automatic Location Heartbeat
  • Elite-Pro: “the ultimate combination of GPS functionality and Automated Collection Technology”. Includes the PassTime GPS features but also mentions “Wireless Command Delivery”.

PassTime seem to like the idea of geofences so much they have patents in related technologies: PassTime Awarded Patent for Geo-Fence and Tamper Notice (US Patent: 8018329). You can find other related patents by looking up other patents held by the inventors (for example…).

You’ll be glad to know that PassTime have UK partners… in the form of The Car Finance Company, who are apparently “the world’s largest user and first company in the UK to start fitting Payment Reminder Technology to your new car”. Largest user?! According to a recent [March 12, 2015] press release announcing an extension to their agreement that “will bring 70,000 payment assurance and telematics devices to the United Kingdom”.

Here’s how The Car Finance Company spin it: The Passtime system helps remind you when your repayments are due so you can ensure you stay on track with your loan and help repair and rebuild your credit. The device is only there to help you keep your repayments up to date, it doesn’t affect your car nor does it monitor the way you drive. From the recent press release, “PassTime has been supplying Payment Assurance and GPS devices to The Car Finance Company since 2009″ (my emphasis). I’m not sure if that means the PassTime GPS (with the starter interrupt) or the Trax device? If I was a journalist, rather than a blogger, I’d probably phone them to try to clarify that…

In passing, whilst searching for providers of automotive GPS trackers in the UK (and there are lots of them – search on something like GPS fleet management, for example…) I came across this rather intrusive piece of technology, The TRACKER Mesh Network, which “uses vehicles fitted with TRACKER Locate and TRACKER Plant to pick up reply codes from stolen vehicles with an activated TRACKER unit making them even easier to locate and recover”. Which is to say, this company has an ad hoc, mobile, distributed network of sensors spread across the UK road network that listen out for each other and opportunistically track each other. It’s all good, though:

“The TRACKER Mesh Network will enable the police to extend the network of ‘eyes and ears’ to identify and locate stolen vehicles more effectively using advanced technology and allow us to stay one step ahead of criminals who are becoming more and more adept at stealing cars. This is a real opportunity for the motoring public to help us clamp down on car thieves and raises public confidence in our ability to recover their possessions and bring the offenders to justice.”

(By the by, previous notes on ANPR – Automatic Number Plate Recognition. Also, note the EU eCall accident alerting system that automatically calls for help if you have a car accident [about, UK DfT eCall cost/benefit analysis].)

This conflation of commercial and police surveillance is… to be expected. But the data’s being collected, and it won’t go away. Snowden revelations revealed the scope of security service data collection activities, and chunks of that data won’t be going away either. The scale of the data collection is such that it’s highly unlikely that we’re all being actively tracked or that this data will ever meaningfully contribute to the detection of conspiracies, but it can and will be used post hoc to create paranoid data driven fantasies about who could have have met whom, when, discussed what, and so on.

I guess where we can practically start to get concerned is in considering the ‘trickle down’ way in which access to this data will increasingly be opened up, and/or sold, to increasing numbers of agencies and organisations, both public and private. As Ed Snowden apparently commented in a session as SXSW (Snowden at SXSW: Be very concerned about the trickle down of NSA surveillance to local police), “[t]hey’ve got everything. The question becomes, Now they’re empowered. They can leak [this stuff]. It does happen at the local level. These capabilities are created. High tech. Super secret. But they inevitably bleed over to law enforcement. When they’re brand new they’re only used in the extremes. But as that transition happens, more and more people get access, they use it in newer and more and more expansive and more abusive ways.”

(Trickle down – or over-reach – applies to legislation too. For example, from a story widely reported in April, 2008: Half of councils use anti-terror laws to spy on ‘bin crimes’, although the legality of such practices was challenged: Councils warned over unlawful spying using anti-terror legislation and guidance brought in in November 2012 that required local authorities to obtain judicial approval prior to using covert techniques. (I realise I’m in danger here of conflating things not specifically related to over-reach on laws “intended” to be limited to anti-terrorism associated activities (whatever they are) with over-reach…) Other reviews: Lords Constitution Committee – Second Report – Surveillance: Citizens and the State (Jan 2009), Big Brother Watch on How RIPA has been used by local authorities and public bodies and Cataloguing the ways in which local authorities have abused their covert surveillance powers. I’m guessing a good all round starting point would be the reports of the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation.)

When it comes to processing large amounts of data, finding meaningful, rather than spurious, connections connections between things can be hard… (Correlation is not causation, right?, as Spurious Correlations wittily points out…;-)

What is more manageable is dumping people onto lists and counting things… Or querying specifics. A major problem with the extended and extensive data collection activities going on at the moment is that access to the data to allow particular queries to be made will be extended. The problem is not that all your data is being collected now, the issue is that post hoc searches over it it could be made by increasing numbers of people in the future. Like bad tempered council officers having a bad day, or loan company algorithms with dodgy parameters.

PS Schneier on connecting the dots.. Why Mass Surveillance Can’t, Won’t, And Never Has Stopped A Terrorist.

PPS Here’s another example of a vehicle taking control of communications: Car calls 911 after alleged hit-and-run, driver arrested.

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

2 thoughts on “Geographical Rights Management, Mesh based Surveillance, Trickle-Down and Over-Reach”

    1. Time for folk to start thinking about responsibilities, perhaps. And for legislators to start producing proper legislation rather than pushing things through where the only safeguard is “well, yes, folk could do that but they won’t…”

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