UK and US watchdogs warn of surveillance risks and the impact on society

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez January 6, 2015
Surveillance commissioner in the UK and the chair of the FTC in the US have both warned that while data collection and surveillance has benefits – there are many concerns to consider.

Camera headed man
Big Brother is watching you. An Orwellian phrase that is often dismissed as a left-wing, liberal scare tactic, used to limit the progression of Western economies and the protection of societies. If you're not doing anything wrong, what does it matter? I bet you've all heard that before.

However, Snowden's revelations about the NSA and the subsequent fallout with governments in Europe has highlighted to the general public that data collection en-masse does happen and that snooping and surveillance is a fairly routine practice. Whilst there are many ongoing debates about the legality and necessity of such operations, society continues to head down a path where governments and organisations collect more information and citizens hand more information over than ever before.

But there are risks to this. Yes, surveillance and data collection improve safety. Yes, businesses can make more money. Yes, we are likely to receive better, more tailored services as a result. But what impact does it have on society?

That's the warning coming from government watchdogs in the UK and the US this week.

Firstly, in an interview with the Guardian, surveillance commissioner Tony Porter warned that the increasing use of surveillance technology – including body-worn video, drones and number plate recognition systems – risks changing the “psyche of the community” by reducing citizens to trackable numbers in a database.

tony porter
Tony Porter

Porter made a number of interesting comments in the interview, which are particularly pertinent when considering his background as a senior counter-terrorism officer. For example, he warned that the public are complacent about encroaching surveillance and urged public sector organisations, including the police and universities, to be more transparent about how they use smart cameras to monitor people. He said:

The lack of public awareness about the nature of surveillance troubles me.

When people say ‘the public love CCTV’, do they really know what it does and its capability? Do they know with advancing technology, and algorithms, it starts to predict behaviour?

If people are going round with surveillance equipment attached to them, there should be a genuinely good and compelling reason for that. It changes the nature of society and raises moral and ethical issues … about what sort of society we want to live in … I’ve heard that supermarkets are issuing staff with body-worn videos. For what purpose? There is nothing immediately obvious to me.

Porter raised a number of concerns about surveillance projects in the UK with police and universities using smart cameras for monitoring, asking whether people will be less open and free if they know they are being filmed and questioning how the data is going to be protected.

He also said that whilst the use of systems such as automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) are valuable, if not used transparently, could impact the “whole psyche of the community”. Porter said that he felt it was “very dangerous” to walk into a “datafied society”, where everybody is a number and everybody can be “linked via ANPR to facial recognition, to another thing”.

Meanwhile, in a similar vein, chair of the US Federal Trade Commission, Edith Ramirez, warned attendees at the annual CES conference in Las Vegas this week that the internet-of-things and smart technologies could create a “deeply personal and startlingly complete” picture of consumers and that this posed a threat to privacy. She warned that the collated data could create a false impression of a person if given to employers, universities or companies.

As an action point, she urged companies involved in the development of such technologies to make sure that they collect the minimum data needed to

edith ramirez
Edith Ramirez

fulfil their function. She said:

Will this information be used to paint a picture of you that you won't see but that others will?"

I question the notion that we must put sensitive consumer data at risk on the off-chance a company might someday discover a valuable use for the information.

My take

It has been said to me before that my generation – the 'millennials' – care less about what data is collected on them and how it is used, when compared to previous generations. And to some extent I believe that to be true, most likely because we can't really remember a time when we weren't handing over all sorts of information to all sorts of organisations.

However, we mustn't become complacent. There are risks. Namely that even if the collection of data is carried out with good intentions, this doesn't mean that it is safe from abuse. We have heard arguments about discrete databases that are seemingly anonymous and 'safe' being matched with other databases to create full pictures of citizens, which could be abused.

Transparency is key and an open discussion with the public should be prioritised – just because it's happening on the internet, doesn't mean that privacy can be thrown out the window.

M.I.T. Professor Gary Marx argues (as highlighted by professor Eric Roberts at Stanford in this document) that before implementing surveillance, we should evaluate the proposed methods by asking questions that include:

  • Does the technique cross a personal boundary without permission?
  • Are individuals aware that personal information is being collected?
  • Do individuals consent?
  • Was the decision to use a tactic arrived at through some public discussion and decision making process?
  • Is there human review of machine generated results?
  • Is the means widely available or restricted to only the most wealthy, powerful or technologically sophisticated?
  • Is it likely to create precedents that will lead to its application in undesirable ways?
  • Is there an appropriate balance between the importance of the goal and the cost of the means?
  • Is there a clear link between the information collected and the goal sought?
  • Is the personal data collected used for profit without permission from, or benefit to, the person who provided it?

Are these questions being addressed on a broad scale across all public and private sector organisations? I don't think so.