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Surveillance: friend or foe?

Words: Jonathan McIntosh 

Surveillance in modern society is, in effect, about disregarding the right to privacy of one group to protect the rights of another. Think about parents watching children or employers watching employees. Surveillance is a necessary everyday mechanism that keeps us safe and criminal activity at bay. But it can be used for more sinister purposes, such as constraining liberties and imposing limits on our lives. Thanks to digital technologies and social media platforms, governments and companies have the potential to keep closer tabs on us than ever before. Which begs the question: is public surveillance friend or foe? We survey the debate here. 

The birth of CCTV 

Surveillance involves monitoring a subject to gather data about them. As its name suggests, public surveillance focuses on the public or public spaces. One of today’s most recognisable forms of public surveillance is CCTV cameras.  

In June 1927, Russian physicist Leon Theremin invented a mechanical CCTV system, which comprised of a manually operated camera and wireless shortwave transmitter and receiver. Joseph Stalin was so impressed by it that he had one installed in the courtyard of Moscow’s Kremlin to observe visitors.  

The use of surveillance cameras rocketed following the Second World War. In 1968, Olean, New York, became America’s first city to install CCTV cameras on its main business street to help reduce crime. CCTV was also introduced to Britain’s streets in the 1960s. By the 1970s, it was mainly used for high-risk security targets, such as banks. In 1987, Norfolk’s King’s Lynn council set up the first local government surveillance system, which was proven to successfully deter crime. As a result, there was a dramatic rise in the number of CCTV cameras being installed in public spaces.  

Big Brother is watching 

According to IFSEC Insider, the UK is the world’s fourth most-watched country – after China, the US, and Germany – and had around 5.2 million CCTV cameras in operation in 2020.

This is the equivalent of one camera for every 13 people. With roughly more than 809,000 surveillance cameras in use, London has the largest number of CCTV cameras of any UK city, followed by Manchester’s 248,000 and Birmingham’s 109,000 cameras. 

From our towns to our cities, we’re being observed by a thousand eyes. As Orwell warned: Big Brother is indeed watching. And whether we like it or not, their gaze is more invasive than ever. But should we be worried that our every move is being monitored? Or should we take comfort in the fact that there’s always someone looking out for us? 

Crimewatch  

The use of CCTV cameras helps to enforce compliance with certain regulations, such as speed cameras in targeted areas to promote safe driving. Camera footage is a major part of the UK’s crime prevention strategy and is often used as evidence in court trials and for identifying suspects.  

These cameras can also help reduce crime rates in areas where they’re in use – helping to promote and preserve public safety. People are far less likely to commit a crime if they know their actions are being watched. This effect of CCTV is especially useful in curbing petty crimes like shoplifting or vandalism. 

A study by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention found that the presence of CCTV cameras successfully deterred criminal activity; the sampled areas showing a 16% reduction in crime compared to places with no CCTV.  

The captured footage facilitates thorough investigations too. With concrete evidence, police can identify individuals responsible for crimes quickly. And thanks to analytical software and ever-evolving facial recognition technology – which logs our images, scans our faces and eyes, records how we move, and more – identification is becoming quicker and more accurate. 

CCTV is a valuable resource for ensuring compliance with the law and, when used correctly, plays an important role in keeping us safe. But if left unchecked and unmonitored, this power can be used for more sinister purposes – the price of which may far outweigh the advantages discussed above. At what point does surveillance, no matter how well-intentioned, border on being harmful? 

Is CCTV a crime-buster? 

Many studies have claimed that CCTVs aren’t as effective in reducing crime rates as they’ve been reported to be. According to the findings of research funded by the UK Home Office in 2009 – which reviewed 44 studies on CCTV schemes, undertaken by the Campbell Collaboration – the use of CCTV in urban centres and housing estates doesn’t actually have a significant impact on reducing crime.  

It found that CCTVs are only effective in cutting vehicle crime in car parks, especially when used alongside improved lighting and security guards. In terms of reducing violent crime, CCTVs have little effect. And often, due to people knowing the location of these cameras, individuals will move to more discrete spots to carry out unlawful activities.   

Inherent biases in surveillance  

Surveillance cameras can be misused by those who control them to perpetuate discriminatory treatment of specific social groups. Data collected from public surveillance systems is fed into algorithms to help analyse it. However, if the collected data is biased to begin with, said algorithms will reinforce them. This can potentially catalyse unjust treatment of certain social groups by law enforcement. For example, policy may place more CCTV cameras in locations with high numbers of ethnic groups or social identities they view as being more likely to commit crime. That means CCTV surveillance can potentially fuel discriminatory practices, such as predictive policing.  

The chilling effects of surveillance 

Some argue that using surveillance to uphold urban democracy and order is worth sacrificing personal privacy for. However, societies with unconstrained law-led surveillance often prevent people from expressing themselves politically and socially, echoing the realities of totalitarian and antidemocratic regimes. Constant public surveillance can foster feelings of suspicion and fear.  

Although surveillance can help change the behaviour of people who intend to carry out undesirable activities, it can also cause law-abiding citizens to self-censor their actions. Would you act the same if you knew your every move was being watched? For example, you might be comfortable sharing your views to a friend face-to-face, but not in a public space where your views – even if they’re not legally or ethically averse – can potentially be recorded. This is known as the ‘chilling effect’ of public surveillance. It can cause people to experience higher levels of stress and decide against practising their basic rights of freedom of speech and peaceful protest for fear of retribution by those monitoring them.  

By way of example, this ‘chilling effect was in full force in Hungary in September 2022 when teachers challenged the government’s unlawful restrictions on their right to strike.

Recordings of teachers protesting to demand the right to strike were used to dismiss individuals for taking part in the demonstrations. The Orban regime recently responded to this unrest with the introduction of a new bill seeking to further limit the teachers’ employment rights. Dubbed the ‘revenge bill’, one clause states that teachers’ electronic devices provided by employers can be monitored. Those found to be criticising the country’s education system via these devices could face losing their job. Stifling expressions with threats is an example of the ‘chilling effect’ of surveillance in full force. 

New technology brings new concerns 

One area of surveillance technology that’s developing rapidly – and generating concern for our privacy – is biometric mass surveillance. This records and saves our facial, fingerprint, and retinal scans via smartphone and other electronic devices, often without our knowledge.  

Facial recognition surveillance captures an individual’s facial features to confirm their identity or to locate them in a group. It’s also used to unlock our smartphones, provide entry to an array of our online accounts, and to confirm our identify at airports. However, critics argue that this technology can be too easily abused for more sinister surveillance purposes.  

A 2011 Carnegie Mellon University study led by privacy expert, Alessandro Acquisti, highlighted the dangers of facial recognition technology.

The researchers used this technology to match the profile pictures of Facebook and dating site profiles; it successfully identified people even if their profile contained only their first name or even a pseudonym.  

As highlighted earlier, facial technology is also affected by judgemental bias. Joy Buolamwini, a researcher at M.I.T. Media Lab, conducted a study in 2018, which found that facial technology recognises white men more easily than women or ethnic groups. Specifically, 35% of facial recognition errors happened when identifying women of colour than compared to 1% for white males. Judgmental bias has already been used by government powers to target specific minority groups. The Chinese government utilised Huawei’s facial recognition technology to identify Uyghurs and trigger an alert that reported their whereabouts to the authorities. Each of these examples shows how biases can shape the artificial intelligence that controls facial recognition.

There’ll never be a society where every person follows every rule. Because of this, some form of surveillance will always be needed to facilitate law, order, and the safety of citizens.  

As much as we try to ensure that it doesn’t, surveillance will always infringe on our privacy to some extent. It’s both a necessary good and necessary evil of modern living. And with increasingly sophisticated monitoring technologies on the horizon, there’s an ever-growing need to strike a balance between using surveillance to maintain public safety while also preserving our universal right to privacy.  

This tricky task is one that deserves surveillance in itself – especially as data-gathering technology becomes more interwoven into our everyday lives. 

Surveillance: friend or foe?

Words: Jonathan McIntosh 

Surveillance in modern society is, in effect, about disregarding the right to privacy of one group to protect the rights of another. Think about parents watching children or employers watching employees. Surveillance is a necessary everyday mechanism that keeps us safe and criminal activity at bay. But it can be used for more sinister purposes, such as constraining liberties and imposing limits on our lives. Thanks to digital technologies and social media platforms, governments and companies have the potential to keep closer tabs on us than ever before. Which begs the question: is public surveillance friend or foe? We survey the debate here. 

The birth of CCTV 

Surveillance involves monitoring a subject to gather data about them. As its name suggests, public surveillance focuses on the public or public spaces. One of today’s most recognisable forms of public surveillance is CCTV cameras.  

In June 1927, Russian physicist Leon Theremin invented a mechanical CCTV system, which comprised of a manually operated camera and wireless shortwave transmitter and receiver. Joseph Stalin was so impressed by it that he had one installed in the courtyard of Moscow’s Kremlin to observe visitors.  

The use of surveillance cameras rocketed following the Second World War. In 1968, Olean, New York, became America’s first city to install CCTV cameras on its main business street to help reduce crime. CCTV was also introduced to Britain’s streets in the 1960s. By the 1970s, it was mainly used for high-risk security targets, such as banks. In 1987, Norfolk’s King’s Lynn council set up the first local government surveillance system, which was proven to successfully deter crime. As a result, there was a dramatic rise in the number of CCTV cameras being installed in public spaces.  

Big Brother is watching 

According to IFSEC Insider, the UK is the world’s fourth most-watched country – after China, the US, and Germany – and had around 5.2 million CCTV cameras in operation in 2020.

This is the equivalent of one camera for every 13 people. With roughly more than 809,000 surveillance cameras in use, London has the largest number of CCTV cameras of any UK city, followed by Manchester’s 248,000 and Birmingham’s 109,000 cameras. 

From our towns to our cities, we’re being observed by a thousand eyes. As Orwell warned: Big Brother is indeed watching. And whether we like it or not, their gaze is more invasive than ever. But should we be worried that our every move is being monitored? Or should we take comfort in the fact that there’s always someone looking out for us? 

Crimewatch  

The use of CCTV cameras helps to enforce compliance with certain regulations, such as speed cameras in targeted areas to promote safe driving. Camera footage is a major part of the UK’s crime prevention strategy and is often used as evidence in court trials and for identifying suspects.  

These cameras can also help reduce crime rates in areas where they’re in use – helping to promote and preserve public safety. People are far less likely to commit a crime if they know their actions are being watched. This effect of CCTV is especially useful in curbing petty crimes like shoplifting or vandalism. 

A study by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention found that the presence of CCTV cameras successfully deterred criminal activity; the sampled areas showing a 16% reduction in crime compared to places with no CCTV.  

The captured footage facilitates thorough investigations too. With concrete evidence, police can identify individuals responsible for crimes quickly. And thanks to analytical software and ever-evolving facial recognition technology – which logs our images, scans our faces and eyes, records how we move, and more – identification is becoming quicker and more accurate. 

CCTV is a valuable resource for ensuring compliance with the law and, when used correctly, plays an important role in keeping us safe. But if left unchecked and unmonitored, this power can be used for more sinister purposes – the price of which may far outweigh the advantages discussed above. At what point does surveillance, no matter how well-intentioned, border on being harmful? 

Is CCTV a crime-buster? 

Many studies have claimed that CCTVs aren’t as effective in reducing crime rates as they’ve been reported to be. According to the findings of research funded by the UK Home Office in 2009 – which reviewed 44 studies on CCTV schemes, undertaken by the Campbell Collaboration – the use of CCTV in urban centres and housing estates doesn’t actually have a significant impact on reducing crime.  

It found that CCTVs are only effective in cutting vehicle crime in car parks, especially when used alongside improved lighting and security guards. In terms of reducing violent crime, CCTVs have little effect. And often, due to people knowing the location of these cameras, individuals will move to more discrete spots to carry out unlawful activities.   

Inherent biases in surveillance  

Surveillance cameras can be misused by those who control them to perpetuate discriminatory treatment of specific social groups. Data collected from public surveillance systems is fed into algorithms to help analyse it. However, if the collected data is biased to begin with, said algorithms will reinforce them. This can potentially catalyse unjust treatment of certain social groups by law enforcement. For example, policy may place more CCTV cameras in locations with high numbers of ethnic groups or social identities they view as being more likely to commit crime. That means CCTV surveillance can potentially fuel discriminatory practices, such as predictive policing.  

The chilling effects of surveillance 

Some argue that using surveillance to uphold urban democracy and order is worth sacrificing personal privacy for. However, societies with unconstrained law-led surveillance often prevent people from expressing themselves politically and socially, echoing the realities of totalitarian and antidemocratic regimes. Constant public surveillance can foster feelings of suspicion and fear.  

Although surveillance can help change the behaviour of people who intend to carry out undesirable activities, it can also cause law-abiding citizens to self-censor their actions. Would you act the same if you knew your every move was being watched? For example, you might be comfortable sharing your views to a friend face-to-face, but not in a public space where your views – even if they’re not legally or ethically averse – can potentially be recorded. This is known as the ‘chilling effect’ of public surveillance. It can cause people to experience higher levels of stress and decide against practising their basic rights of freedom of speech and peaceful protest for fear of retribution by those monitoring them.  

By way of example, this ‘chilling effect was in full force in Hungary in September 2022 when teachers challenged the government’s unlawful restrictions on their right to strike.

Recordings of teachers protesting to demand the right to strike were used to dismiss individuals for taking part in the demonstrations. The Orban regime recently responded to this unrest with the introduction of a new bill seeking to further limit the teachers’ employment rights. Dubbed the ‘revenge bill’, one clause states that teachers’ electronic devices provided by employers can be monitored. Those found to be criticising the country’s education system via these devices could face losing their job. Stifling expressions with threats is an example of the ‘chilling effect’ of surveillance in full force. 

New technology brings new concerns 

One area of surveillance technology that’s developing rapidly – and generating concern for our privacy – is biometric mass surveillance. This records and saves our facial, fingerprint, and retinal scans via smartphone and other electronic devices, often without our knowledge.  

Facial recognition surveillance captures an individual’s facial features to confirm their identity or to locate them in a group. It’s also used to unlock our smartphones, provide entry to an array of our online accounts, and to confirm our identify at airports. However, critics argue that this technology can be too easily abused for more sinister surveillance purposes.  

A 2011 Carnegie Mellon University study led by privacy expert, Alessandro Acquisti, highlighted the dangers of facial recognition technology.

The researchers used this technology to match the profile pictures of Facebook and dating site profiles; it successfully identified people even if their profile contained only their first name or even a pseudonym.  

As highlighted earlier, facial technology is also affected by judgemental bias. Joy Buolamwini, a researcher at M.I.T. Media Lab, conducted a study in 2018, which found that facial technology recognises white men more easily than women or ethnic groups. Specifically, 35% of facial recognition errors happened when identifying women of colour than compared to 1% for white males. Judgmental bias has already been used by government powers to target specific minority groups. The Chinese government utilised Huawei’s facial recognition technology to identify Uyghurs and trigger an alert that reported their whereabouts to the authorities. Each of these examples shows how biases can shape the artificial intelligence that controls facial recognition.

There’ll never be a society where every person follows every rule. Because of this, some form of surveillance will always be needed to facilitate law, order, and the safety of citizens.  

As much as we try to ensure that it doesn’t, surveillance will always infringe on our privacy to some extent. It’s both a necessary good and necessary evil of modern living. And with increasingly sophisticated monitoring technologies on the horizon, there’s an ever-growing need to strike a balance between using surveillance to maintain public safety while also preserving our universal right to privacy.  

This tricky task is one that deserves surveillance in itself – especially as data-gathering technology becomes more interwoven into our everyday lives. 

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