Opinion

Big Brother is watching – now more than ever

There is no denying that technology today is on a faster rise than ever. As Google, Facebook and Apple become global giants in providing consumer technology, alongside them this technology has aided a different aim: security and surveillance tech. 

Video monitoring systems are increasingly getting paired with analytical technology and AI which can monitor human action. Amazon for instance launched their “just walk out” technology to all retailers a few months ago which uses cameras to auto-determine what a person has purchased without the need for checkout. As a result, store cameras, as opposed to merely recording human interactions now take an active role in analysing the video footage. 

Similarly, Microsoft last year announced their ability to track emotion to enhance security. But it is readily apparent that in the hands of entities such as the police, this can be used to exacerbate biases and discrimination that already exist. New Balance in a video campaign used this same analytical technology to identify fashion trends on the street by AI filtering out people’s outfits. However, this can easily be applied to finding all people within a crowd wearing a hoodie or headscarf, for instance.

Not only is this technology available, it’s even becoming easier to use. Companies such as BriefCam are also providing the AI technology which will let companies comb through hours of stored footage in seconds by pinpointing type, gender, size, color, direction, speed and more of what you are looking for. With features like these, specific groups of people, namely minorities, can quickly be profiled. Thus, one thing is clear: the rise of these new technologies can inadvertently be used as a mechanism for surveillance and control. 

In America, basic citizen information is easily collected and stored through tax forms and driver’s licenses and this is done without the use of intelligence agencies. However, private companies also massively aid this process by the information that ISPs, credit reporting agencies, and other public utility companies collect which they are legally obliged to turn over to the government when it is requested.

Applications of this technology have created imminent danger, especially in countries that already have a highly controlling government of which China serves as a prime example. Here, the use of facial recognition and AI is already widespread, but recently investigations have revealed that in Xinjiang which is home to Uighur camps, a system of segregated surveillance monitors only this muslim minority, generally ignoring the Han Chinese.

This kind of technology poses a looming danger, however, As citizens, we are often unaware of not only the quantity of our data but what purpose it is serving. Just last month in the UK, the South Wales police was accused of using a technological system that had “racial bias” which violates a data protection law. In Hong Kong this is shaping up to consist of home searches and mass arrests. 

The result of modern day facial recognition technology is that it has the ability to profile people by their race and act in accordance to biases which lead to disproportionate arrests being made in minority group communities. The CEO of IBM has even pulled out of the facial recognition market and condemned the US government’s use of this law enforcement due to the widespread harms it could cause.

George Orwell famously warned of the rise of a surveillance state in his dystopian novel 1984 where he shows how the government and policing forces quickly disintegrated into tyranny and oppression of the poor. Though many saw this as an extreme depiction, many of the features Orewell cautioned about are actually being implemented today in a virtual sense by key industry players.

For example, social media giants now have access to both humans and algorithmic technology that monitors users around the clock and can flag and delete discourse that violates their own policy. Those who have a history of committing these violations then have their existence deleted from the platform and are banned, leading to issues of censorship and limited freedom of speech. Apps like TikTok also strictly curate our content to decide what we are able to view which requires massive amounts of user data, some of which has allegedly been used for surveillance purposes. Additionally, like in 1984, smartphones nowadays parallel the role of “telescreens” and the vast network of private companies exists to monetise and manipulate us, similar to the Orwellian surveillance state.

While Orwell portrays a much harsher government reality, some of the elements of his imagined dystopia are evidently already being materialised in the status quo by these large corporations. In fact, in Russia, the facial recognition software released to monitor schoolchildren is even named “Orwell” after his cautionary tale.

It is very important to recognise the extent of privacy that is being lost by the ordinary public. Edward Snowden did most of the groundwork for this when he revealed the NSA mass surveillance program in the United States in 2013. However, seven years later, US surveillance has only increased, especially since the signing of the FISA reauthorisation bill in 2018.

The classic counterargument is that citizens should not be afraid of mass surveillance programs if they have nothing to hide. But the reality is that opposing surveillance should be a bipartisan issue, founded on the moral grounds of respecting individuality and liberty. And to this extent, major human rights organisations like the ACLU and Amnesty International have active campaigns against mass government surveillance. 

Ultimately, surveillance itself is not harmful. But, with technology so powerful, the line between protecting society and violating privacy is a fine one. As such, most believe that the ideal solution is to have governments be transparent with what information is collected on citizens and for people to have a right to know and vote on the legislation surrounding this practice of surveillance. Only then will we strike the balance between public safety and individual freedom.

Anvee Bhutani

Anvee Bhutani is Senior Media Editor of The Oxford Blue and was formerly both News Editor and Events Director. She is a penultimate year student at Magdalen College reading Human Sciences and is originally from San Francisco, California.