Thursday, April 17, 2014

Cost of a DIY NSA?

A core thesis of mine these days is that citizens worried about NSA surveillance are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.  Computers get cheaper and faster every year.  This puts surveillance technology within reach of just about anyone.

Let's build our own surveillance network on a street corner, with some spy cameras, and consider how much it costs.

Data point #1: Bandwidth and storage costs for a 24 hour video feed.  We'll imagine that one camera produces 1GB/day.

Data point #2: Spy cameras such as this one.  To ensure good coverage of our street corner from multiple angles, we will place 6 spy cameras at $9.00/each.

Data point #3: Amazon cloud storage.  Inbound bandwidth is free.  We are uploading 6GB/day.  Because we are super-smart and know the NSA's secret time travelling techniques, we will store 60 days worth of video.  That caps our data storage at 360 GB.  Cost: $10.80/month.

Data point #4: Open source biometrics software.  This is free.

Data point #5: Amazon cloud processing.  Being conservative and over-estimating, we will have a 3-computer cloud processing our video data for biometrics, running 24/7.  Cost @ m3.large: $302.00/month.

Data point #6: Derived data.  The data so far is just raw video.  We want to build a database of persons, cars, etc. over time.  We'll assume a 3x expansion of data storage due to this.  That increases our data storage cost to $43.20/month.  This is a conservative over-estimation, as derived data will likely be exponentially smaller than raw video.

Data point #7: Site controller, to which all the spy cameras connect.  Just need a laptop and an Internet connection.  Cost: $300.00 one time for laptop, $60.00/month for Internet.

Total non-labor costs for our street corner DIY NSA project:
  • $354.00 initial
  • $405.20/month
For this cost, you may obtain a wealth of biometric data:  faces, license plates, associations between people, other biometric markers such as voice or gait, product usage.  Anything that may be gleaned from audio or video by simple, legal, public observation over time may be data mined for biometrics and personal data.

Folks engaged in the NSA debate often do not realize how inexpensive and accessible is this technology to local law enforcement, private corporations, and criminals.

Cheap cloud storage and data mining has implications for freedom of association and freedom of thought.  The NSA via Snowden has made this issue starkly clearly... but the media and public miss the larger point that technology itself, not NSA abuses, are leading us to global surveillance state where we will be watched by any number of public and private parties without our knowledge or consent.

Note: This post intentionally over-estimates costs by taking retail prices, not at scale, and assuming naive software implementations.  A local law enforcement agency or Google-level corporation could easily reduce these costs by large factors (100-1000x).

1 comment:

  1. I've played a bit with dashcams, and in my experience you need 1080p video to have a reasonable chance of being able to read a license plate. I think that means your estimate of 1GB/day is way off. At 10 mbps encoded, a day's worth of 1080p video is closer to 100GB.

    I agree with the main point though. It looks like small organizations can easily play NSA in their neighbourhood, and it will only get cheaper.