Video Surveillance and Facial Recognition — Is This the End of a Free Society?

George J. Ziogas

Image: stockmedia/Adobe Stock

This topic has two sides and raises two questions: First, does the government (or any institution or organization, for that matter) have the right to acquire, store, and access a potentially unlimited amount of information about individuals? Second, do individuals have an unrestricted right to privacy? Obviously, the answers to both those questions cannot be an unqualified “yes.”

Societies’ mores constantly change. The changes are slow and rarely happen simultaneously and evenly across all segments of society. That’s why, when lawmakers enact laws to accommodate such changes, it’s generally long after those laws were first needed. For example, in many western countries, women did not get the legal right to vote until the suffragettes and others forced a change in society’s thinking that eventually led to a change in the law.

For many years after the proliferation of the motor car at the beginning of the last century, no laws existed to restrict speed on highways. Similarly, no laws existed to regulate the sale of tobacco products before the second half of the 20th century because the serious negative health implications of smoking were not widely known. In short, societal change spurs legislative change, but the latter is typically years behind the former.

The fact that the law is constantly playing catch-up has always been a problem, but rarely as big a problem as it is today because of the rapid speed of technological innovation. Up until the time when powerful computers became widespread and advanced data managing software was developed, few laws regulating the collection, storage, and use of data about individuals existed because they were unnecessary.

The past 20 years has produced enormous technological advances in artificial intelligence (AI). Facial recognition technology is one of those advances and is among the most disturbing. Of course, it’s astounding that software can analyse the image of a person’s face and match it in real-time to a stored image. What’s even more amazing is that with the latest high-resolution CCTV cameras, matching can be performed on a live video image.

In 2019, the UK police trialled such a system in London, the city with the highest density of CCTV cameras per capita in the world. London beats even Chinese cities, where public surveillance systems are widespread and their use no secret. The British police declared the London facial recognition trial a success. Some civil liberties organizations declared it a potential step towards a police state.

These kinds of systems are disturbing on many levels. With so many cameras capturing people’s movements, nobody knows whose images are recorded, when, by whom, what exactly they are used for, and where and for how long they are stored. The authorities may say that they don’t record and store these images, or if they do, that they do so only for a very short time. The temptation for law-enforcement agencies, however, is to stretch their use to the limit simply because CCTV with facial recognition makes policing easier and more efficient.

Authorities attempt to justify the use of such intrusive methods on the basis that they help catch more criminals and maybe even prevent some crimes. That argument is misguided and potentially dangerous. To take an extreme example: There would likely be much less crime if everyone over the age of eighteen had to wear an ankle bracelet, the kind of monitoring device police use in some countries to keep track of criminals. Obviously, such a measure would be outrageous and would never be considered in a democratic country. Yet the example raises the valid question: How much monitoring by the authorities is acceptable and how far is too far?

Most people are happy to see police on the beat in their neighborhood. An occasional police presence enhances a sense of safety and probably reduces some types of crime. People would be shocked, however, if police officers were stationed permanently in the middle of every street and at every street corner in every town and recorded details of every person and vehicle passing by. That kind of intrusion would likely produce a public outcry and the practice would be shut down quickly. Yet even more intrusive surveillance exists today, albeit in a more subtle form, and it elicits little or no outcry.

CCTV cameras are ubiquitous in the towns and cities of the US and most other western countries, and people can take it for granted that they may be videoed whenever they use a public road. In addition, CCTV cameras operated by private companies capture images of members of the public in stores, bars, discos, banks, car parks, airports, leisure centres, filling stations, and libraries — in fact just about anywhere accessible to the public. For various reasons, recordings made by private CCTV systems are frequently made available to law enforcement agencies and other public bodies. In truth, there is little privacy.

When they leave their homes, members of the public are not just watched 24/7, but video recordings of their activities can be stored for unspecified lengths of time and analysed later. The targets of this mass surveillance, ordinary members of the public, rarely know who is doing the monitoring, for how long the recording will be retained, and who might view it. To believe that such mass surveillance could never be abused is naïve especially since laws regulating such systems and those who operate them are mishmash and vague at best.

People were wary of the state’s intrusion into their lives long before the era of electronic surveillance. In the first century AD, reflecting that wariness, the Roman poet Juvenal posed the question “quis custodiet ipsos custodes,” (who will guard the guards themselves?). The phrase may have become a cliché. Nevertheless, it is more relevant today than it ever was. The public will need new robust laws and more transparent oversight of “the guards,” if they are to feel protected rather than threatened by today’s surveillance systems and the agencies that use them.

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