“Modern Tech Can’t Shield Your Secret Identity”
Communications of the ACM, May 2022, Vol. 65 No. 5, Pages 24-25
By Jason Hong
“But, this blog post isn’t really about superheroes, it’s actually about our current reality and just how widespread surveillance technologies are.”
Most comic book superheroes have a secret identity, usually to protect their friends and family from retribution. However, today’s computer technology would make it impossible for a superhero to maintain their secret identity.
Take Spider-Man, who has a habit of diving into an alley to change into costume. However, video cameras are pervasive in New York City, which could easily capture video of him donning his mask. The New York City Police Department operates over 15,000 surveillance cameras, but there are thousands more Webcams controlled by residents and commercial entities. Worse, many of these cameras are small and sometimes hidden in everyday objects, making them difficult to spot.
Drones pose a major risk for vehicle-based superheroes like Batman. Gorgon Stare is a “wide-area surveillance sensor system” in which a drone flies over a city and continuously captures images below. This makes it possible to track cars in real time, as well as trace their paths backward in time. Gorgon Stare was initially deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan for counter-insurgency purposes, but is believed to have already been deployed in the U.S. with little oversight. These and other citywide surveillance technologies would make it trivial for an organization with enough resources to track Batman back to the Batcave.
Superman faces risks from large-scale facial recognition technologies. There’s a humorous meme3 of Lois Lane uploading to Facebook a photo of Superman rescuing her, and is asked “Want to tag Clark Kent?” While Face-book recently shut down its face recognition, there are many other systems commercially available. Perhaps the most prominent is Clearview AI, which has caused a great deal of controversy by crawling social media sites to get pictures of millions of people’s faces without their consent.
Ms. Marvel is a popular new superhero, but she doesn’t do herself any favors by carrying her cellphone with her. Every cellphone needs to connect to a nearby cell tower for service, and these connections are recorded. An analyst could easily filter these records based on confirmed sightings of Ms. Marvel and narrow down which cellphone is likely hers. In practice, many requests for cell-tower data are made by law enforcement agencies after a warrant is obtained. T-Mobile reported having 459,989 such requests for cell tower data in 2018.
About the Author:
Jason Hong is a professor in the School of Computer Science, and the Human Computer Interaction Institute, of Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, USA.