Uncomfortable Facts About Surveillance That Most People Don’t Know

Nowadays, you can’t walk down the street without passing a security camera. Surveillance is as common as clouds, and the demand for new surveying technology continues to grow. But how effective are surveillance cameras? And how widespread are surveillance tools?

Although surveillance happens everywhere, many people prefer to not think about spy rings or federal data collection hubs. But those who are interested will want to know the history of modern surveillance. From ancient Roman towers to modern websites sharing information, here are the top-secret facts about surveillance through the years.

The Definition Of Surveillance

An army student surveys a map during a training exercise.
Kirill KukhmarTASS via Getty Images
Kirill KukhmarTASS via Getty Images

“Surveillance” is a French word that means “to watch over.” The word stemmed from the Latin vigilare, literally meaning “watchful.” It’s the same root that’s in the word vigilance, which is the action of watching out for potential danger. In contrast, surveillance means monitoring behavior for influence or to direct.

The word likely arrived in the English language from the Reign of Terror in France. The French municipality used to run “surveillance committees” that monitored the actions of criminals and dissidents. That’s not a far cry from what we use the word for today.

It’s A Big Business

 A member of the Thruvision team is seen on the screen posing on a security camera system.
Leon Neal/Getty Images
Leon Neal/Getty Images

Global video surveillance is a business, and it’s making a lot of money. According to a report by BIS Research, the video surveillance industry is expected to earn over $77.21 billion by 2023. In 2017, the business earned over $32 billion, and demand for safety is expected to remain high for five to six years.

Video surveillance is highly valued for its 24-hour documentation, especially for businesses. According to the report, the Asia-Pacific region was the dominant market in 2017. Despite earning so much money, the market only has 15 leading companies selling the cameras.

Surveillance Cameras Effectively Reduce Crime

A CCTV security camera watches the Aberthaw coal-fired power station
Matthew Horwood/Getty Images
Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

In 2016, over 350 million surveillance cameras dotted the globe. This huge number made people ask how effective video surveillance is. Throughout the years, statistics have consistently shown that security cameras prevent crime. In East Orange, New Jersey, crime declined by 50% between 2003 and 2006.

In 2017 alone, crime in Baltimore, Maryland, dropped by 17% after the police installed more security cameras. They also saved the city $1.50 for every $1 spent on the technology. Cities end up saving money overall, especially when they have fewer arrests.

Wiretapping Has Been Going On For Centuries

An unlock message is seen on an iPhone on top of a Macbook computer.
Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Wiretapping has occurred for many centuries. In 1862, California passed the first bill against wiretapping in the United States. Although it’s illegal on a national level, wiretappings can still be approved by the court and the federal government.

Throughout the 20th century, presidents have allowed wiretapping under certain conditions. In 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized the FBI to wiretap Martin Luther King Jr.’s home and office, but those were later removed. Later, Nixon approved illegal wiretapping during the Watergate scandal.

The NSA Formed Over 100 Years Ago

A sign for the National Security Agency, US Cyber Command and Central Security Service, is seen near the visitor's entrance to the headquarters of the NSA.
SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

The earliest form of the National Security Agency (NSA) was established only three weeks after the United States joined World War I. At the time, it was called the Cipher Bureau and was led by Herbert O. Yardley. His team was tasked with deciphering codes and arranging the Army’s organizational chart.

The ciphering team eventually developed into the Black Chamber, a cryptoanalytic organization. By the 1950s, the NSA formed under its current name, although it was not public at the time. It remained a government secret for years.

Ancient Roman Surveillance

Remains Of A Roman Tower stand by The Coptic Museum.
Insights/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Insights/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The history of surveillance goes back centuries. In 2017, archaeologists uncovered surveillance towers established during the Roman Empire. The towers allowed soldiers to oversee the landscape without revealing themselves. Records indicate that Romans would also hide behind curtains and in other places to eavesdrop on others.

Julius Caesar ran an intelligence network that handed him a list of conspirators shortly before he was assassinated. If the ruler had read the message and acted, he might have survived. However, most of the Romans’ targets were neighboring clans such as the Etruscans, Samnites, and Gauls.

How Websites Monitor You

A customer takes a selfie with a new iPhone 7.
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Government surveillance programs target individual computers since people store all their personal data on them. But since they can’t tap into computers, they gain information from popular websites. An NSA program called PRISM allows the U.S. government direct access to information from everyday websites.

Search history, emails, live chats, file transfers, and instant messaging are all surveilled through PRISM. The NSA establishes contracts with websites like Google to obtain this information. Each category filters into a database like “Pinwale,” which stores all available emails from Americans and foreigners alike.

Most Security Cameras Aren’t Owned By People

A security camera hovers over Fresno, California.
Getty Images
Getty Images

Despite the prevalence of surveillance video, only 9% of consumers are people who set up their own security. Yet, security cameras are almost ubiquitous — the United Kingdom hosts one camera for every 11 people. So who buys them? Companies and government organizations.

The average person passes surveillance cameras over 300 times a day. They’re common because they effectively prevent people from robbing or trespassing in businesses and private government property. Many cameras even monitor areas that people can’t enter, such as nuclear power plants.

The Process Doesn’t End With Watching

The shares of Brazil's multinational mining company Vale are seen on a screen.
Cris Faga/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Cris Faga/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Professional surveillance doesn’t end when the data is collected. The information undergoes two processes: data mining and data profiling. During data mining, algorithms (usually from a computer program) establish patterns in the information. Data profiling assembles the information by groups or individuals.

These processes relate surveillance to security. Professionals follow “paper trails” and “electric trails” to confirm whether an individual or group is a threat. However, most organizations use data mining and profiling to prevent crime, rather than catching a thief in the act.

All Mail Is Surveilled

Cards in bins are ready to process at a United States Postal Service facility.
David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Unfortunately, criminals often mail tools to each other. While the U.S. Postal Service can’t legally open every package, they can keep track of all of them. They photograph the front and back of every piece of mail–over 150 billion envelopes, packages, and postcards every year.

This program, called “mail cover,” allows police to inspect any piece of mail that might have been involved in a crime. Experts also use “data analytics” to determine whether or not a package contains a weapon. However, most of the mail cover program focuses on preventing mail theft and fraud.

Surveillance Comes From The Stars

A screen broadcasting the redocking of the Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft
Stanislav KrasilnikovTASS via Getty Images
Stanislav KrasilnikovTASS via Getty Images

In 2007, the American government employed a satellite surveillance organization called the National Applications Office (NAO). This wasn’t the first satellite surveillance idea, though. The U.S. launched its first satellite, Explorer I, to spy on the Soviet Union during the Cold War. However, the USSR beat the Americans with Sputnik 1.

Today, NAO regularly uses satellite surveillance. Reconnaissance satellites and aircrafts can see through clouds and even the earth, and produce images with higher quality than Google Earth. They can even identify objects and chemical traces.

All Online Messages Are Automatically Documented

A woman looks at her email on a computer screen.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

There are far too many messages and posts on the internet for individuals to track. Hence, automated internet surveillance gathers every bit of online information. “Trigger words,” such as visiting certain sites and googling certain words, are given special attention.

Is this legal? Yes. The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act demands all phone calls and messages to be available for real-time surveillance. Agencies such as the NSA and FBI spend billions of dollars per year on maintaining these automated programs.

CCTV Wasn’t Always Surveillance

A monitor shows CCTV live feed on a double decker London bus.
TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images
TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

CCTV stands for closed-circuit television, meaning that the broadcast only reaches specific computers. One of the earliest records of CCTVs is from WWII Germany. Although the government closely watched its citizens, they didn’t use CCTV for that. Instead, they used it to observe the launch of V-2 rockets safely.

But that wasn’t the first instance of CCTV. In 1927, Russian physicist Leon Theremin developed the first model of the surveillance camera. After he demonstrated his invention to Soviet leaders, they installed cameras in the courtyard to oversee visitors.

An Army Of Spy Graduates

The silhouettes of people are seen through blinds inside the offices of Cambridge Analytica.
DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images
DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images

From the 1930s through the 1950s, the United Kingdom had a ring of spies passing information to the Soviet Union. These men were all graduates from the University of Cambridge, and they became known as the Cambridge Five. All worked for Britain, but they secretly placed their loyalty in a communist government.

The Cambridge Five were never arrested for their surveillance. They got away with their illegal spying because, at the time, Soviet surveillance was far more advanced than British surveillance. Later, the FBI described them as one of the most thorough intelligence rings ever.

People Surveyed Themselves For Decades

Sheila Freeman writes a note to God
Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

In 1937, former students from the University of Cambridge encouraged people to survey themselves consistently. This became known as the Mass-Observation organization, which ran through the 1960s and was revived in 1981. Over 500 participants kept diaries and answered multiple questionnaires throughout their lives.

These records became significant for future politics and historians. During World War II, politicians referenced Mass-Observation research to shape their public policy. The records continue today, and all past writings and questionnaires are currently held at the University of Sussex.

Internet “Fusion Centers”

A Facebook logo is seen on a smartphone with computer numbers in the background.
Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

So far, the U.S. has spent $370 million on 78 “fusion centers.” These are hubs of a network that collects information from state, territorial, and federal agencies. Local law enforcement analyzes this information and shares it with federal agencies, such as the NSA, if applicable.

Fusion centers became notorious for Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR), where people report signs of potential terrorist or criminal activity. In other words, this is why people are afraid of what they google. For many years, the NSA has received intelligence tips from other organizations, such as the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Passports Are A Form Of Surveillance

Bilingual passport control sign points to passport approval in a Miami International Airport.
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Sociologist John Torpey claims that passports are a form of modern surveillance in The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State. When airports stamp passports, they keep a listing of where people travel in case they need to track them down.

Although the passports we know today are modern, the concept of passports dates back centuries. In Medieval Europe, travelers required a “passport” to walk through city gates. In the Bible, Nehemiah of Persia requested access from Judea so he could travel safely.

Queen Elizabeth I’s Spy Network

Engraved portrait of Elizabeth Queen of England, by William Marshall, 1880.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

One of the most famous cases of secret government surveillance occurred in 16th-century England. Queen Elizabeth I worried that supporters of Mary, Queen of Scots planned to dethrone her. Lead by Elizabeth’s loyal minister, Francis Walsingham, a secret network of spies aimed to safeguard the Queen.

Walsingham sent spies to live abroad and send him intelligence. He organized all the information and uncovered many plots that were stopped before they could gain steam. Elizabeth I later knighted Walsingham as her “spymaster.” His spy group’s approach mirrors many modern-day surveillance techniques but without the internet or satellites.

Thank CCTV For Your Daily Traffic Updates

The logo of the New York City Police Department (NYPD) stands on a surveillance camera near Times Square.
Alexandra Schuler/picture alliance via Getty Images
Alexandra Schuler/picture alliance via Getty Images

CCTV cameras don’t just watch out for burglaries. They also monitor traffic. Traffic cameras help commuters by reporting jams, accidents, and road work. If you’ve ever wondered how some map apps report accidents, now you know. Some of these cameras are even live for you to view online.

Traffic cameras also enforce road laws. At some intersections, CCTV cameras will catch drivers who run red lights and encourage people to drive safely. In this sense, traffic cameras are the ultimate form of surveillance: they track data and encourage security.

Surveillance Flies

Technician manipulates a drone to spread pesticide in a flower field.
Fu Jianbin/Visual China Group via Getty Images
Fu Jianbin/Visual China Group via Getty Images

Surveillance tools are literally flying above us at all times. As miniaturized computers advanced, surveillance entered an aerial phase with hardware such as spy planes and drones. Armies have no shortage of planes and helicopters that photograph and record areas. Over the years, agencies have developed programs to target foreign spy planes as well.

But aerial surveillance isn’t limited to the military. For example, the Killington Mountain ski resort paid for aerial photography to see their competitor’s parking lots. In recent years, drones have allowed average consumers to survey their surrounding areas.