Madison Ruppert, Contributing Writer
Like me, chances are you have probably never heard of the concept of “crowd soft control,” or just “soft control,” for that matter.
“Soft control” is a way to leverage the millions of cell phones owned by Americans across the United States of America in order to assist in massive data gathering – and potentially surveillance – operation; and with 88% of Americans now owning a cell phone, this shouldn’t be all too difficult.
This goes far beyond the data collection of Silicon Valley giants and even the surveillance capabilities already available via smartphone applications.
Researchers now see an infinite amount of possibilities when it comes to how they can leverage the audio recording capabilities and photography capabilities, not to mention global position systems (GPS) on most modern mobile devices.
Some of the more tame examples could be services that collect data from users in order to monitor noise pollution or air quality, as well as applications which could create maps from the various pictures taken on users’ devices.
However, this same technique could also be used to incentivize citizen spying in order to conduct massive surveillance operations which could never be conducted without the technique known as “crowd sourcing.”
Yet it would not be feasible to pay 88% of Americans to conduct various activities; instead, it is much easier to utilize “soft control” to encourage people to do things that they might otherwise never do.
This is where researchers from Northwestern University come in. They have discovered that it is possible to gently push users in the direction they desire by using incentives which are already integrated in their routine use of their mobile device.
Fabian Bustamante, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University, has produced a paper called “Crowd Soft Control: Moving beyond the Opportunistic,” outlining these methods.
“We can rely on good luck to get the data that we need, or we can ‘soft control’ users with gaming or social network incentives to drive them where we want them,” Bustamante said, according to Homeland Security News Wire.
They have figured out that incredibly inconsequential incentives like extra points in a game if the player goes to a given location in the real world or as part of a kind of “virtual scavenger hunt,” can actually drive people to do what they want and go where they need them to.
To test the viability of soft control, Bustamante and his team developed games for the Android Operating System, including an augmented reality game called “Ghost Hunter.”
This game makes the player chase “ghosts” around his or her area in order to “zap” them through an augmented reality display, which means that the images of the game are displayed on top of real world imagery captured from the player’s cell phone.
In reality, the entire thing can be used as a way to have users unknowingly gather surveillance images since the “zapping” actually takes a picture of the spot where the “ghost” is located.
These images then could be sent to a remote server replete with time and date stamp, location data down to the precise coordinates and more.
The most noteworthy aspect of this is that unlike most augmented reality games, the targets – in this case “ghosts” – are not randomly distributed around the user’s area.
Instead, the researchers are able to specifically place the “ghosts” in places where they need photographs taken.
They use the example of taking pictures of locations which are rarely photographed, like the back side of the Lincoln Memorial, while in reality this would be much better suited to having unaware users capture pictures of surveillance targets.
The researchers used Northwestern University students to test the game, and they were not told which “ghosts” were placed randomly and which were placed specifically by the research team.
“We wanted to know if we could get the players to go out of their way to get points in the Ghost Hunter game,” Bustamante said. “Every time they zapped a ghost, they were taking a photograph of Northwestern’s campus. We wanted to see if we could get more varied photographs by ‘soft controlling’ the players’ movements.”
The researchers discovered that study subjects were more than willing to travel well out of their way to take pictures of the ghosts as part of the game, even without any incentive beyond meaningless points.
Whereas a random sampling of photographs of Northwestern University’s Charles Deering Library from Flickr turned up mostly photographs of the front of the library, the researchers discovered that they were able to collect many photographs from various unusual angles with the help of ‘soft control.’
This could potentially be used to capture information on a location without having to dispatch an agent to capture the images or even redirect a satellite to capture aerial images.
Instead, they could just place “ghosts” or something similar in another augmented reality game to willingly go out of their way and break routine just to get a couple of imaginary points.
“Playing the game seemed to be a good enough vehicle to get people to go to these places,” said John P. Rula, a Northwestern University graduate student and the lead author of the paper.
If this technology is rolled out on a larger scale, Bustamante says that users would have to be notified that their data was being collected. However, if current trends are any indicator, the vast majority of users would simply ignore the information and never even know what they were doing.
Furthermore, they are only speaking of protecting the privacy of the user, not the privacy of the individual or location which might be the target of ‘soft control’ operations.
I see this as just another way to bring citizen spying into the digital age, helping push people to spy or “snitch” on their fellow citizens all while fostering a culture of delusional paranoia and crippling fear.
My coverage of this technology has, in the past, brought some interesting comments, as evidenced by the comment section of my article about the application Crime Push, which brought comments from IP addresses with the same exact law school which the creator of the application attends (which isn’t all that surprising) as well as the United States General Services Administration.
Unfortunately, they did not respond after I pointed out where they were located and questioned their potential motives for posting such comments, as I’d really like to get some insight into that.
It will be interesting to see if this article brings similar attention, or if they’ll be smart enough to at least obfuscate their IP addresses this time.
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This article first appeared at End the Lie.