Mass surveillance

Mass surveillance

Mass surveillance is the pervasive surveillance of an entire population, or a substantial fraction thereof.

Modern governments today commonly perform mass surveillance of their citizens, explaining that they believe that it is necessary to protect them from dangerous groups such as terrorists, criminals, or political subversives and to maintain social control.

Mass surveillance has been widely criticized on several grounds such as violations of privacy rights, illegality, and for preventing political and social freedoms, which some fear will ultimately lead to a totalitarian state where political dissent is crushed by COINTELPRO-like programs. Such a state may also be referred to as an Electronic Police State.


State enforced

Privacy International's 2007 survey, covering 47 countries, indicated that there had been an increase in surveillance and a decline in the performance of privacy safeguards, compared to the previous year. Balancing these factors, eight countries were rated as being 'endemic surveillance societies'. Of these eight, China, Malaysia and Russia scored lowest, followed jointly by Singapore and the United Kingdom, then jointly by Taiwan, Thailand and the United States. The best ranking was given to Greece, which was judged to have 'adequate safeguards against abuse'.[1]

Many countries throughout the world have already been adding thousands of surveillance cameras to their urban, suburban and even rural areas.[2][3] For example, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has directly stated that "we are fast approaching a genuine surveillance society in the United States - a dark future where our every move, our every transaction, our every communication is recorded, compiled, and stored away, ready to be examined and used against us by the authorities whenever they want."[4]

United Kingdom

A bank of seven Closed-circuit television cameras monitoring people exiting Birmingham New Street Station, a major British railway station.

At the end of 2006, the UK was described by the Surveillance Studies Network as being 'the most surveilled country' among the industrialized Western states.[5]

On 6 February 2009 a report by the House of Lords Constitution Committee, Surveillance: Citizens and the State,[6] warned that increasing use of surveillance by the government and private companies is a serious threat to freedoms and constitutional rights, stating that "The expansion in the use of surveillance represents one of the most significant changes in the life of the nation since the end of the Second World War. Mass surveillance has the potential to erode privacy. As privacy is an essential pre-requisite to the exercise of individual freedom, its erosion weakens the constitutional foundations on which democracy and good governance have traditionally been based in this country."[7]

Public perception

A YouGov poll published on December 4, 2006, indicated that 79% of those interviewed agreed that Britain has become a 'surveillance society’ (51% were unhappy with this).[3] In 2004 the Information Commissioner, talking about the proposed British national identity database gave a warning of this, stating, "My anxiety is that we don't sleepwalk into a surveillance society."[8] Other databases causing him concern were the National Child Database (ContactPoint), the Office for National Statistics' Citizen Information Project, and the National Health Service National Programme for IT.

CCTV networks

In 2002 it was estimated[9] that the United Kingdom was monitored by over 4.2 million CCTV cameras, some with a facial recognition capacity, with practically all cities and towns under 24-hour surveillance. Currently, in the City of Westminster, microphones are being fitted next to CCTV cameras. Westminster council claims that they are simply part of an initiative against urban noise, and will not "be used to snoop", but comments from a council spokesman appear to imply that they have been deliberately designed to capture an audio stream alongside the video stream, rather than simply reporting noise levels.[10]

As of Feb 2010, many larger cities in the UK now have CCTV in which if an operator spots anything illegal or troubling, they are able to speak through the cameras via loudspeaker into the street, and some also have microphones to allow them to hear what the public are saying.

Unmanned-aircraft vehicle systems

A consortium of government agencies and the arms manufacturer BAE Systems intends to begin using drones for the surveillance of the 2012 Summer Olympics. Police forces have signed up to a scheme for "surveillance, monitoring and evidence gathering" to introduce unmanned aerial vehicles "into the routine work of the police, border authorities and other government agencies" for the ­"routine" monitoring of antisocial motorists, ­protesters, agricultural thieves and fly-tippers. The drones stay airborne for up to 15 hours with monitoring equipment such as high-definition cameras, radar devices and infrared sensors and reach heights of 20,000f. They could be used for road and railway monitoring, search and rescue, event security and covert urban surveillance. Other routine tasks could be to use the drones to combat "fly-posting, fly-tipping, abandoned vehicles, abnormal loads, waste management". To offset some of the running costs it was proposed the aircraft could undertake commercial work during spare time and selling the surveillance data to private companies.[11]

Public transport

In London, the Oyster card payment system can track the movement of individual people through the public transport system, although an anonymous option is available, while the London congestion charge uses computer imaging to track car number plates.


In 2002 the UK government announced plans to extend the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), so that at least 28 government departments would be given powers to browse citizens' web, email, telephone and fax records, without a warrant and without a subject's knowledge.[12] Public and security authorities made a total of 440,000 requests to monitor people's phone and internet use in 2005-2006.[13] In the period 11 April to 31 December 2006 the UK government issued 253,557 requests for communication data, which as defined by the RIPA includes who you phoned, when they phoned you, how long they phoned you for, subscriber information and associated addresses.[14]

Since October 2007 telecommunication companies have been required to keep records of phone calls and text messages for twelve months under the Data Retention Directive[15] Though all telecoms firms already keep data for a period, the regulations are designed to ensure a uniform approach across the industry.[16] This enables the Government and other selected authorities within the UK such as Police and Councils amongst others to monitor all phone calls made from a UK landline or Mobile upon request.

In 2008 plans were being made to collect data on all phone calls, emails, chat room discussions and web-browsing habits as part of the Government's Interception Modernisation Programme, thought likely to require the insertion of 'thousands' of black box probes into the country’s computer and telephone networks.[17] The proposals were expected to be included in the Communications Data Bill. The "giant database" would include telephone numbers dialed, the websites visited and addresses to which e-mails are sent "but not the content of e-mails or telephone conversations."[18] Chris Huhne, Liberal Democrat Home affairs spokesman, said: "The government's Orwellian plans for a vast database of our private communications are deeply worrying."[19] In November 2009, ministers confirmed that the estimated £2 billion project will proceed as planned. A consultation found that 40% of people were against the plans which will also include monitoring communications in online games.[20]

Mobile phone tracking

Some shopping centres have tracked customers through mobile phone signals. A system can tell when people enter the centre, how long they stay in a particular shop, and what route each customer takes. The system works by monitoring the signals produced by mobile handsets and then locating the phone by triangulation.[21]

Vehicle tracking

Swiss European surveillance: facial recognition and vehicle make, model, color and license plate reader. In Germany and Switzerland the systems are near universal

Across the country efforts are increasingly under way to track closely all road vehicle movements, initially using a nationwide network of roadside cameras connected to automatic number plate recognition systems. These tracks, record and store the details of all journeys undertaken on major roads and through city centres and the information is stored for five years.[22] In the longer term mandatory onboard vehicle telematics systems are also suggested, to facilitate road charging (see vehicle excise duty).

DNA Database

The British Police hold records of 5.5 million fingerprints and over 3.4 million DNA samples on the National DNA Database. There is increasing use of roadside fingerprinting - using new police powers to check identity.[23] Concerns have been raised over the unregulated use of biometrics in schools, affecting children as young as three.[24]

Overseas travel

In February 2009 it emerged that the government is planning a database to track and store records of all international travel into and out of the UK. The database will retain record of names, addresses, telephone numbers, seat reservations, travel itineraries and credit card details, which will be kept for 'no more than 10 years'.[25]


Forward Intelligence Teams conduct mass surveillance of political and environmental protestors and of journalists . The information they gather is then stored on the crimint database.[26]

Recent developments

On 21 December 2010 the Identity Documents Act 2010, which scraps the impending mandatory ID card scheme, received Royal Assent. A further Great Repeal Bill which aims to restore some civil liberties is also in the pipeline.[27]

United States

Official seal of the Information Awareness Office -- a U.S. agency which developed technologies for mass surveillance

Historically, mass surveillance has been used during wartime censorship to control communications of the populace. For example, in the United States during the World Wars, every international telegram sent through companies like Western Union was reviewed by the US military. After the wars were over, the mass surveillance continued, via programs such as Black Chamber and Shamrock.[28]

COINTELPRO projects from 1956—1971 targeted various "subversive" organizations, including various peaceful anti-war, racial equality and civil rights groups including Martin Luther King Jr. and Albert Einstein.

Internet communications

The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) requires that all U.S. telecommunications companies modify their equipment to allow easy wiretapping of telephone, VoIP, and broadband internet traffic.[29][30][31]

Billions of dollars per year are spent, by agencies such as the Information Awareness Office, National Security Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to develop, purchase, implement, and operate systems such as Carnivore, ECHELON, and NarusInsight to intercept and analyze the immense amount of data that traverses the Internet and telephone system every day.[32]

The Total Information Awareness program, of the Information Awareness Office, designed numerous technologies to be used to perform mass surveillance. Examples include advanced speech-to-text programs (so that phone conversations can be monitored en-masse by a computer, instead of requiring human operators to listen to them), social network analysis software to monitor groups of people and their interactions with each other, and "Human identification at a distance" software which allows computers to identify people on surveillance cameras by their facial features and gait (the way they walk). The program was later renamed "Terrorism Information Awareness", after a negative public reaction.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has an ongoing lawsuit (Hepting v. AT&T) against the telecom giant AT&T for its assistance of the U.S. government in monitoring the communications of millions of American citizens. It has managed thus far to keep the proceedings open. Recently the documents, exposed by a whistleblower who previously worked for AT&T, showing schematics of the massive data mining system were made public.[33][34]

The FBI developed the computer programs "Magic Lantern" and CIPAV, which they can remotely install on a computer system, in order to monitor a person's computer activity.[35]

In 1999 two models of mandatory data retention were suggested for the US: What IP address was assigned to a customer at a specific time. In the second model, "which is closer to what Europe adopted", telephone numbers dialed, contents of Web pages visited, and recipients of e-mail messages must be retained by the ISP for an unspecified amount of time.[36][37] In 2006 the International Association of Chiefs of Police adopted a resolution calling for a "uniform data retention mandate" for "customer subscriber information and source and destination information."[38] The U.S. Department of Justice announced in 2011 that criminal investigations "are being frustrated" because no law currently exists to force Internet providers to keep track of what their customers are doing.[39]

The Internet Stopping Adults Facilitating the Exploitation of Today's Youth (SAFETY) Act of 2009 also known as H.R. 1076 and S.436 would require providers of "electronic communication or remote computing services" to "retain for a period of at least two years all records or other information pertaining to the identity of a user of a temporarily assigned network address the service assigns to that user."[40]

Intelligence apparatus to monitor Americans

Since September 2001, a vast domestic intelligence apparatus has been built to collect information using FBI, local police, state homeland security offices and military criminal investigators. The intelligence apparatus collects, analyzes and stores information about thousands of American citizens, many of whom have not been accused of any wrongdoing. Every state and local law enforcement agency is to feed information to federal authorities to support the work of the FBI.[41]


In early 2006, USA Today reported that several major telephone companies were cooperating illegally with the National Security Agency to monitor the phone records of U.S. citizens, and storing them in a large database known as the NSA call database. This report came on the heels of allegations that the U.S. government had been conducting electronic surveillance of domestic telephone calls without warrants.[42]

Law enforcement and intelligence services in the United States possess technology to remotely activate the microphones in cell phones in order to listen to conversations that take place nearby the person who holds the phone.[43][44]

U.S. federal agents regularly use mobile phones to collect location data. The geographical location of a mobile phone (and thus the person carrying it) can be determined easily (whether it is being used or not), using a technique known multilateration to calculate the differences in time for a signal to travel from the cell phone to each of several cell towers near the owner of the phone.[45][46]

Surveillance cameras

Traffic cameras, which were meant to help enforce traffic laws at intersections, have also sparked some controversy, due to their use by law enforcement agencies for purposes unrelated to traffic violations.[47]

The Department of Homeland Security is funding networks of surveillance cameras in cities and towns as part of its efforts to combat terrorism.[48] In February 2009, Cambridge, MA rejected the cameras due to privacy concerns.[49]

Data mining

The NSA has been gathering information on financial records, internet surfing habits, and monitoring e-mails. They have also performed extensive surveillance on social networks such as Myspace.[50]

The FBI collected nearly all hotel, airline, rental car, gift shop, and casino records in Las Vegas during the last two weeks of 2003. The FBI requested all electronic data of hundreds of thousands of people based on a very general lead for the Las Vegas New Year's celebration. The Senior VP of The Mirage went on record with PBS' Frontline describing the first time they were requested to help in the mass collection of personal information.[51]

Infiltration of activist groups

The New York City Police Department infiltrated and compiled dossiers on protest groups (most of whom were doing nothing illegal) before the 2004 Republican National Convention, leading to over 1,800 arrests and subsequent fingerprinting.[52]

European Union

The legislative body of the European Union passed the Data Retention Directive on 2005-12-15. It requires telecommunication operators to implement mass surveillance of the general public through retention of metadata on telecommunications and to keep the collected data at the disposal of various governmental bodies for substantially long times.[clarification needed] Access to this information is not required to be limited to investigation of serious crimes, nor is a warrant required for access.

Undertaken under the Seventh Framework Programme for research and technological development (FP7 - Science in Society[53]) some multidisciplinary and mission oriented mass surveillance activities (for example INDECT and HIDE) are funded by the European Commission[54] in association with industrial partners.[55][56][57]

The INDECT Project[58] ("Intelligent information system supporting observation, searching and detection for security of citizens in urban environment") develops an intelligent urban environment observation system to register and exchange operational data for the automatic detection, recognition and intelligent processing of all information of abnormal behaviour or violence.[59][60]

The main expected results of the INDECT project are:

  • implementation of a distributed computer system that is capable of acquisition, storage and effective sharing on demand of the data
  • devices used for mobile object tracking
  • a search engine for fast detection of persons and documents based on watermarking technology used for semantic search
  • agents assigned to continuous and automatic monitoring of public resources such as CCTV, websites, Internet forums, usenet newsgroups, file servers, P2P networks and individual computer systems

The consortium HIDE ("Homeland Security, Biometric Identification & Personal Detection Ethics"), devoted to monitoring the ethical and privacy implications of biometrics and personal detection technologies and promoted by the European Commission develops ADABTS ("Automatic Detection of Abnormal Behaviour and Threats in crowded Spaces"), a low-cost pro-active surveillance system to detect potential abnormal behaviour in crowded spaces.[61]


The SORM (and SORM-2) laws enable complete monitoring of any communication, electronic or traditional, by eight state agencies, without warrant. These SORM laws are believed by[who?] some to be against Constitution of Russia, however:

Constitution of Russia. Article 23[62]:
1. Everyone shall have the right to the inviolability of private life, personal and family secrets, the protection of honour and good name.
2. Everyone shall have the right to privacy of correspondence, of telephone conversations, postal, telegraph and other messages. Limitations of this right shall be allowed only by court decision.

Germany & Netherlands

In 2002 German citizens were tipped off about wiretapping, when a software error led to a phone number allocated to the German Secret Service being listed on mobile telephone bills.[63]

East Germany

Before the Digital Revolution, one of the world's biggest mass surveillance operations was carried out by the Stasi, the secret police of the former East Germany. By the time the state collapsed in 1989, the Stasi had built up an estimated civilian network of 300,000 informants (approximately one in fifty of the population), who monitored even minute hints of political dissent among other citizens. Many West Germans visiting friends and family in East Germany were also subject to Stasi spying, as well as many high-ranking West German politicians and persons in the public eye.

Most East German citizens were well aware that their government was spying on them, which led to a culture of mistrust: touchy political issues were only discussed in the comfort of their own four walls and only with the closest of friends and family members, while widely maintaining a façade of unquestioning followership in public.


The Indian parliament passed the Information Technology Act of 2008 with no debate, giving the government fiat power to tap all communications without a court order or a warrant. Section 69 of the act states "Section 69 empowers the Central Government/State Government/ its authorized agency to intercept, monitor or decrypt any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource if it is necessary or expedient so to do in the interest of the sovereignty or integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence or for investigation of any offence."

India is setting up a national intelligence grid called NATGRID,[64] which would be fully set up by May 2011 where each individual's data ranging from land records, internet logs,air and rail PNR, phone records, gun records, driving license, property records, insurance, and income tax records would be available in real time and with no oversight.[65] With a UID from the Unique Identification Authority of India being given to every Indian from February 2011, the government would be able track people in real time. A national population registry of all citizens will be established by the 2011 census, during which fingerprints and iris scans would be taken along with GPS records of each household.[66][67]


In 2008 a law was passed allowing warrantless wiretapping of all communications (including internet and telephone calls) crossing the border. This law went to effect on the 1st December 2009 when all affected ISPs had to provide a copy of border crossing traffic to the authorities. While it is believed that other states have similar wiretapping programs, Sweden is the first nation to publicize it.

Due to the architecture of internet backbones in the Nordic area, a large portion of Norwegian and Finnish traffic will also be affected by the Swedish wiretapping.

Commercial mass surveillance

As a result of the digital revolution, many aspects of life are now captured and stored in digital form. Concern has been expressed that governments may use this information to conduct mass surveillance on their populations. Commercial mass surveillance often makes use of copyright laws and "user agreements" to obtain (typically uninformed) 'consent' to surveillance from consumers who use their software or other related materials. This allows gathering of information which would be technically illegal if performed by government agencies. This data is then often shared with government agencies - thereby - in practice - defeating the purpose of such privacy protections.

One of the most common forms of mass surveillance is carried out by commercial organizations. Many people are willing to join supermarket and grocery loyalty card programs, trading their personal information and surveillance of their shopping habits in exchange for a discount on their groceries, although base prices might be increased to encourage participation in the program. Since a significant proportion of purchases are carried out by credit or debit cards, which can also be easily tracked, it is questionable whether loyalty cards provide any significant additional privacy threat.

Through programs like Google's AdSense, OpenSocial and their increasing pool of so called "web gadgets", "social gadgets" and other Google-hosted services many web sites on the Internet are effectively feeding user information about sites visited by the users, and now also their social connections, to Google. Facebook also keep this information, although its acquisition is limited to page views within Facebook. This data is valuable for authorities, advertisers and others interested in profiling users, trends and web site marketing performance. Google, Facebook and others are increasingly becoming more guarded about this data as their reach increases and the data becomes more all inclusive, making it more valuable.[68]

New features like geolocation give an even increased admission of monitoring capabilities to large service providers like Google, where they also are enable to track your physical movements while users are using mobile devices, especially those which are syncing without any user interaction. Google's Gmail service is increasingly employing features to work as a stand-alone application which also might activate while a web browser is not even active for synchronizing; a feature mentioned on the Google I/O 2009 developer conference while showing the upcoming HTML5 features which Google and others are actively defining and promoting.[69]

In 2008 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, said: "The arrival of a truly mobile Web, offering a new generation of location-based advertising, is set to unleash a 'huge revolution'".[70] At the 2010 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, February 16, Google presented their vision of a new business model for mobile operators and trying to convince mobile operators to embrace location-based services and advertising. With Google as the advertising provider, it would mean that every mobile operator using their location-based advertising service would be revealing the location of their mobile customers to Google.[71]

Google will also know more about the customer - because it benefits the customer to tell Google more about them. The more we know about the customer, the better the quality of searches, the better the quality of the apps. The operator one is "required", if you will, and the Google one will be optional. And today I would say, a minority choose to do that, but I think over time a majority will... because of the stored values in the servers and so forth and so on....

—2010 Mobile World Congress keynote speech, Google CEO Eric Schmidt


Google China has a history of cooperating with the wishes of the authorities. Organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation are constantly informing users on the importance of privacy, and considerations about technologies like geolocation.

Literature and movies

Critical of mass surveillance

  • Nineteen Eighty-Four, a novel by George Orwell depicting life under an omnipresent totalitarian state, and is probably the most prominent of the media listed; the 'Big Brother' who watches over the novel's characters is now used to describe any form of spying on or interfering with the public, such as CCTV cameras.
  • We, a little-known 1920 novel by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin, that predates Nineteen Eighty-Four and was read by its author George Orwell.
  • The Transparent Society by David Brin, discusses various scenarios for the future considering the spread of cheap web-cameras, increases in government security initiatives, and the possible death of encryption if quantum computing becomes reality.
  • Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, set in San Francisco after a major terrorist attack; the DHS uses technologies such as RFIDs and surveillance cameras to create a totalitarian system of control.
  • The Minority Report, a story by Philip K. Dick about a society that arrests people for crimes they have yet to commit (made into a movie in 2002).
  • A Scanner Darkly, another novel by Philip K. Dick, examines how close we are as a society to complete surveillance by law enforcement.
  • THX 1138, a 1971 film by George Lucas depicting life in an underground dystopia where all human activities are monitored centrally at all times. A high level of control is exerted upon the populace through ever-present faceless, android police officers and mandatory, regulated use of special drugs to suppress emotion, including sexual desire. The film was first made as a student project in the University of Southern California and called Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB.
  • Oath of Fealty, a 1982 novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle describing a large arcology whose dwellers and visitors are constantly being of surveilled by a variety of technologies
  • Blue Thunder, 1983 movie starring Roy Scheider
  • Brazil, a film by Terry Gilliam depicting an oppressive total information awareness society
  • Pizza, a short Flash video by the American Civil Liberties Union depicting ordering pizza by phone in a Total Surveillance Society.
  • Discipline and Punish by the critical theorist Michel Foucault is generally taken as being one of the paradigmatic works on theories of surveillance and discipline
  • Equilibrium, 2002 film wherein a dystopian future society surviving the third world war takes an emotion-suppressing drug and where the general public is constantly watched by the government to make sure that no one breaks the equilibrium.
  • V for Vendetta
  • Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance and the Culture of Control by Social and Environmental philosopher, Derrick Jensen thoroughly examines the use of RFID chips, nanotechnology, military technology, science, and surveillance.
  • The Listening, a 2006 movie in which a rogue NSA employee fights against the agency's Echelon system and one of its corporate partners.
  • Eagle Eye, a 2008 movie which portrays how surveillance can get out of hand.
  • The Lives of Others, the 2006 German drama film, movingly conveys the terrible impact that constant surveillance has on the emotional wellbeing and life prospects of those subjected to it.
  • Tomorrow Never Dies, the eighteenth film in the James Bond series. The plot revolves around the ruthless Murdochesque media baron, Elliot Carver, whose newspapers print false stories that are related to Carver's secret agenda. A clear sign of his vanity and a reference to Big Brother, much of Carver's headquarters in Hamburg is decorated with vast, imposing banners, with Carver's face glaring out.
  • Enemy of the State, a 1998 film starring Will Smith and Gene Hackman, portrays an attorney who is the target of an NSA cover-up related to a bill in Congress that would expand the federal government's surveillance powers.
  • The Dark Knight, the 2008 summer blockbuster delved into whether the public security against the Joker's actions warranted Batman's mass scale spying on Gotham City's citizens using cell phone technology. Lucius Fox, Morgan Freeman's character, threatened to quit Wayne Enterprises over Batman's private surveillance of Gotham claiming that no one man should possess such power. However the hero of the movie, Batman, claimed that mass surveillance of citizens was vital to fight "terrorism". Batman came to Lucius opinion at the end of the film, when he destroyed the surveillance system.[73]
  • The Last Enemy, a 2008 BBC 5 episode series which dealt with Total Information Awareness monitoring of near-future Britain, and the Government's use of race-specific remote drugs which could be triggered to affect one population but not the other.[74]

Praising mass surveillance

  • The Light of Other Days is a science-fiction book that praises mass surveillance, under the condition that it is available to everyone. It shows a world in which a total lack of privacy results in a decrease in corruption and crime.
  • Digital Fortress, novel by Dan Brown, involving an NSA codebreaking machine called 'TRANSLTR', reading and decrypting email messages, with which the NSA allegedly foiled terrorist attacks and mass murders.
  • Déjà Vu (2006 film) is a movie in which a supercomputer synthesizes multiple Closed Circuit TV and Satellite images from 24 hours in the past into a single framework.

See also


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  22. ^ Henry Porter The Guardian Blog: Paying billions for our database state
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  27. ^ New government's Great Repeal Bill can help repair Labour's damage to our liberties
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