Handcuffed and Under Surveillance

Posted on: April 9, 2019
Posted in Social

Today I got pulled over by law enforcement, handcuffed and interrogated for 2 hours.

“Are you from NYC?”  “Yes”  

“Is this a rental car?” “Yes it is”.

“Were you in Torrance?” “uhm. Yes I was.”

In the moments I was pulled over and was being cuffed, the cop rattled off these questions. I answered, unaware of why they were arresting me and what the hell was going on. In their mind the details lined up and seemed to further confirm they had their guy. I didn’t even know what was happening until they started to ask me about the car.

There were three police vehicles and three officers and they didn’t start off exactly… friendly.

I deal with these situations generally well, but I have to say if you haven’t been handcuffed before (baby’s first time!) it’s a surreal experience. I felt so powerless physically being immobilized it felt ethereal, kind of like a dream.

“So what do you do?” The officer asked me while he was handcuffing me. “I started a tech company”.

I’ve kind of always wanted to have time with real cops. I know that may read funny.  I have a soft spot for local law enforcement because I think they see a distorted and stressed part of society and have to take that home to their spouse and kids, seeing all the criminalization going on in America.

I learned in the ensuing conversation that 99% of cars that get reported as stolen are indeed stolen. With my all-black pants and black jacket and scruff I suppose I looked the part. Plus through some sheer coincidence the car (to be clear not my car) was reported stolen in Torrance CA and of all coincidences I was there last week.

When it started to become clear that I may be telling the truth —  that I had rented the car myself from SFO and hasn’t driven it from Torrance  — as the officers were looking through my records and trying to contact Hertz via phone — I got to talking about things. I find that even in the least auspicious scenarios you should sometimes talk to people and see what you have in common. Anthony Bourdain was the master of this. We are losing our ability to do so.

That’s when the conversation piqued. As one officer tried to get through to Hertz’s antiquated phone systems to a real human who could confirm I was indeed the renter, I asked how they knew details about me instantly and how the car was reported as stolen. I’m literally talking shop as my hands are behind my back to an officer about technology. Go figure.

The cars were something. F-150 decked-out pickups to be exact. As I told the guy about my company Estimote and how we deploy sensors in places like the Marriott hotel parking lot I was pulled over in, I asked how they had known in that moment I was from NYC.

The officer said “look over there” at the grill of the towering F-150 and you could see cameras through the front. They were aftermarket add-ons that could scan for license plates and in a half second search through a cloud based enforcement database for stolen cars, all while their vehicle is just pointed in a direction. There were some particularities he explained as if he was a purveyor of the technology – like certain plates (the black and yellow ones in CA) give it problems – but overall a lock happens in a half second and things go in to action quickly from there. “What’s it connected to?” I asked. He told me the screen was a PC inside the vehicle and alerts were fired in real-time to a dashboard alerting them the car was stolen. No more calling in plates—just point and shoot your car as you drive really, kind of like a fighter jet.

My questions continued – we talked about technology, how they do their job, the challenges, what’s changed in the Bay Area – blah blah I grew up in San Jose. It was fun conversation.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t want to be there, but there’s a certain job-interview nature of standing in handcuffs with a Starbucks on your Nissan Maxima’s roof along with everything from your pockets emptied out. And what the fuck else was I going to do.

We covered a LOT.

I talked of the time my Vespa ran out of gas after the Sandy hurricane in NYC, and how a kind soul gave me a half gallon of gas on the street even though the line at the station was 10 blocks long. I really like NYPD, I told him. The city is organized and clean. SF is a wreck. We agreed.

I think the sort of cerebral effect of feeling incarcerated made me extra lucid. My mind raced after seeing their camera setup to all the things happening in tech using image recognition. It’s something I’ve marveled over since concentrating in DSP and image processing as a EE in college.

Upon learning the officer’s wife worked at Stanford Children’s Hospital, that immediately seeded another talking point I’d heard this week.

I asked if they’d heard of this insidious hacking scheme that’s possible now where fake cancerous modes can be interjected into CT scans in hospitals. “Yeah It was in the NY Times last weekend”.  As I explained the piece and what was happening technically – that people could hack into hospitals and maliciously change the imagery of CT scans by uploading artifacts on to images which showed cancer, you could see the consternation on his face. People could be directed to get operations to remove entire organs for a cancer they never had! What a sick and twisted thing to do.

Make no mistake these guys liked me now. Though Hertz would not respond, it was about halfway through the interrogation that my cuffs were removed. The talk continued while they worked to remove my car as stolen.

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Pretty much everything you are doing is now being recorded. Having these capabilities is unprecedented. Cheap, always-on, cloud connected, measuring just the bits that move, or in the case of my Hertz rental, just the 7 digits flying down the road.

People are being recorded on hidden cameras unbeknownst in the Airbnb they’re frolicking in. It’s possible for all this to be so small and cheap as to be everywhere, folks.

To have that level of accuracy in an off-the-shelf car add-on that is already in use by slow moving agencies should give you an idea of what is possible. But this police camera example is germane. That tech was available years ago. The real problem is –  what happens next, when images and videos can be processed, manipulated and faked is where it all starts to feel a lot… different.

In China this is what society is dealing with: How China Turned a City into a Prison

In airports (again in China) this is the level of facial recognition that’s being deployed.

The case for strong data privacy, strong system-wide cryptography and the corresponding brand values from companies we trust with our information – like Apple, and not like Facebook – has never been stronger.

The tools available to the big tech companies, and to the government, are of a power that we did not see in years past. They can be used for good – to eliminate cars being stolen – and they can be used for bad.

As an industry (Silicon Valley), as an increasingly politicized society (I write this as a coastal US’er), and as a global interconnected world, the playing field is complex. With great power comes great responsibility.

I wrote this post out of being irritated as well as partly humored by it all, but above else to create something out of a shitty situation. If that’s the only time I’m almost arrested, I’ll take it.

In case anyone reads this and shares it around San Carlos CA and knows Officer Alex Gross, say hi and forward this to him for me. He’s one of the good guys keeping our local communities safe. Once I was un-cuffed, he couldn’t profusely apologize enough and told me Hertz would be calling tomorrow to apologize to me — Alex wasted 3 hours of your taxpayer money to clear my rental as not stolen. The part I liked best was him encouraging me to demand a year of free rentals, and that I “seemed like a mellow guy but this is the time I should really give it to them”. Thank you for the compliment Alex, I am fairly mellow.

Yeah, like I’ll wait around for that call and the free rentals. But thank you again Hertz — your awful records and systems allowed me to share a short story that is worth us as a society discussing.

To be ignorant to what is coming is bliss. But the approach I’d recommend is to understand what’s happening in tech. The world is changing and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

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