Respect EU Project Focus on Designing Privacy First

There is no better name for a European project that aims to enhance people's privacy in the midst of growing surveillance technology than Respect.

Respect, which stands for “Rules, Expectations & Security through Privacy-Enhanced Convenient Technologies”, is a project set up to shed light on the use of surveillance technology and change the way devices are designed in order to protect people's privacy.

Funded with € 3.5 million by the European Union Seventh Framework Program (FP7), the project wants to promote the use of the “Seven principles of privacy by design”:

  1. Proactive not reactive; Preventative not remedial
  2. Privacy as the default setting
  3. Privacy embedded into design
  4. Full functionality — Positive-sum, not zero-sum
  5. End-to-end Security — Full lifecycle protection
  6. Visibility and transparency — Keep it open
  7. Respect for User Privacy — Keep it User-Centric

The project will “develop a toolkit of pan-European application (and beyond) that will balance citizens' privacy and security concerns”. This toolkit, according to the project’s website, will consist of:

  • A matrix-style checklist incorporating operational/technical-economics-social factors – legal aspects which could be utilized as a decision-support tool for policy-makers assessing systems specifically designed for surveillance;
  • System design guidelines;
  • Model force-level regulations which can be adopted by a police force for the deployment of Surveillance systems including large-scale integrated systems

Incorporating privacy rules into product design will help manufacturers and law-enforcement agencies make sure that surveillance devices not only comply with existing legislation but also increase people's acceptance of those technologies.

One example is Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR). Many police forces and other government agencies are using the technology to regularly check car license plates for stolen vehicles, lack of insurance, or expired permits. This way police officers cruising the streets don't need to watch for those cars; the system will alert them when the license plate has a match on their database.

The problem is the secondary use of the ALPR technology. Police cars cameras and stationary cameras placed in highways and intersections, equipped with ALPR, can read and check several thousand of plates every minute, and they record the date, time, and GPS location of each one. But most police forces do not erase that information, potentially using it for tracking individuals without proper court authorization. It is like installing a GPS tracking device on every car without the owner's knowledge.

In the UK, the country with most CCTV cameras in the world, when the system became operational in 2006, the control center in the north of London was already able to store 50 million plate reads per day.

One solution could be to design the system to immediately delete any license plate read if it doesn't match any record in the database. This feature should be incorporated at hardware level to make it tamper proof. In several EU countries, ALPR devices cannot be connected to any communication system. And the database of wanted vehicles is offline, but can be updated several times during the day.

One disturbing technology is the so-called “dirtboxes” (whose name comes from Digital Receiver Technology, a subsidiary of Boeing). The Dirtbox and Stingray are both types of “IMSI catchers,'' named for the system used by networks to identify individual cell phones. Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that those devices, installed on small planes and unmarked vehicles, are being used to scan data from the cellphones of thousands of Americans who are not targets of any investigation.

Recently the US Justice Department announced that it would start disclosing more about the use of those cell phone tracking devices. Agencies such as the FBI, which for years didn't bother to get warrants to track suspects using those technologies, have begun requesting them from judges.

The problem remains, however, if the devices are not redesigned to ignore data collected from non-suspects. If the “dirtboxes” continue to keep records of cellphone IDs and locations of everybody in their range, it effectively creates a database that can be used against law-abiding individuals that have the right to their privacy. Unfortunately, the manufacturers of those devices usually focus on making them able to capture more rather than less data.

However, the privacy-enhancements need to be implemented at product design and manufacturing. Companies should be required to check with privacy regulators about the collection and storage technologies they plan to implement into their products to determine if they comply with the “privacy by design” rules.

One example of “privacy by design” are street cameras designed to count people in specific zones. Here in Barcelona, the city has partnered with Cisco to install infrared cameras in the touristic “Born” quarter. The cameras cannot be used for facial recognition but allow the city to monitor the number of people in different areas and track them entering shops, restaurants and using the public space.

One of the biggest challenges European governments face is that most of these surveillance devices are designed with the American market in mind. And many others, mostly designed in the US, are marketed to governments where privacy is not a concern.

In the words of Günther Oettinger, EU commissioner:  “The Americans … have got the data, the business models and so the power.”

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