Wed, May 22, 2019 - Page 9 News List

As surveillance culture grows, can we hope to escape its reach?

By Kenan Malik  /  The Observer

Sometimes, it is the very ordinariness of a scene that makes it terrifying. So it was with a clip from last week’s BBC documentary on facial recognition technology. It shows the Metropolitan police trialling a facial recognition system on an east London street.

A man tries to avoid the cameras, covering his face by pulling up his fleece. He is stopped by the police and forced to have his photograph taken.

He is then fined £90 (US$114) for “disorderly behavior.”

“What’s your suspicion?” someone asks the police.

“The fact that he’s walked past clearly masking his face from recognition,” one of the plainclothes police operating the system replies.

If you want to protect your privacy, you must have something to hide, and if you actually do something to protect your privacy, well, that is “disorderly behavior.”

There is considerable panic in the West about the Chinese tech firm Huawei acting as a Trojan horse for Beijing, but perhaps we should worry less about the tech company than about the social use of technology.

Much has been written about Beijing’s development of a dystopian surveillance state. It is not just in China, though, that what one observer has called “ algorithmic governance “ is beginning to take hold.

As the tech entrepreneur Maciej Ceglowski said in testimony to a US Senate committee hearing this month: “Until recently, even people living in a police state could count on the fact that the authorities didn’t have enough equipment or manpower to observe everyone, everywhere and so enjoyed more freedom from monitoring than we do living in a free society today.”

The UK has long been one of the most closely monitored societies in the world. There are at least 4.9 million CCTV cameras in Britain — one for every 14 people. Some estimates suggest that 20 percent of all CCTV cameras are in the UK.

Now, the UK is at the forefront of the rollout of facial recognition technology. Police forces are using it to monitor shopping centers, music festivals, sports events and political demonstrations.

The technology is currently beset with myriad problems. It is inaccurate — according to the campaign group Big Brother Watch, in police trials “a staggering 95 percent of ‘matches’ wrongly identified innocent people” — and there is a major issue of racial bias in the algorithms.

However, the real problem, technology writer Jamie Bartlett suggested, is not that it does not work, but, rather, that it might work very well.

“Despite the problems, I expect it will be very effective at tackling crime and keeping us safe. At what cost?” he said.

In other words, how much do we treasure privacy? Are we all willing to be treated like that man on an east London street?

Nor is it just facial recognition technology that is the issue here.

Almost without realizing, we have created an entire infrastructure of surveillance. If you’re reading this online, you are being tracked. If you bought a print version of the newspaper at a supermarket, your purchase was probably recorded. Every time you go shopping, use public transport, make a telephone call, engage with social media, you are likely to have been tracked.

Surveillance is at the heart, too, of “smart cities.” From Amsterdam to Singapore, from Dubai to Toronto, cities across the globe are embracing technology to collect data on citizens, ostensibly to improve public services and make urban spaces function better.

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