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Why are we so keen to trade our civil liberties for security?

With Europe gradually relaxing lockdown measures over the coming weeks in an attempt to reduce the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, attention has turned to technological solutions. When it comes to topics of security and personal safety, it seems that the majority of people in Europe are willing to accept encroachments into their civil liberties by adopting technological solutions. But does this set a dangerous precedent, where such technology is implemented now, but then stays in place even after the crisis has been averted, and becomes part of our daily lives?

Contact Tracing Apps Offer Hope of a Way Out

Contact-tracing apps have been suggested as a particularly effective method of enabling European governments to gradually ease restrictions in stages. When used in conjunction with mass testing, such apps enable governments to discern how much of the virus is circulating within a country at any given time. This data can then be used to set out appropriate policies.

The picture emerging from East Asia is that these apps have been useful as part of the fight against Covid-19 — with Taiwan, China, Singapore and South Korea all employing them in order to help ‘flatten the curve’. The big question is whether Europeans will be as receptive to this technological intervention. As MIT academic Professor Huang notes, “clearly, applying technology in these ways can be an important tool in containing the pandemic. But this use of technology raises sobering policy questions about data sovereignty and privacy issues that are more contentious in Western democracies than in the more collectivist societies of East Asia.”[1]

What type of concerns are cropping up? (Source: Bloomberg)

At the moment early indications are that the European public is putting their support behind the idea of contact-tracing apps. In Germany, a poll of 10,000 citizens found that 56% would voluntarily agree to use such an app if it were introduced[2]. The number is even higher in Britain, where a survey commissioned by the FT, found that 65 per cent of people said they agreed with using smartphones to identify people who had been diagnosed with Covid-19 and establish who they had come into close contact with. [3] Fascinatingly, though, this technology has been around for some time now. As reported in Wired, in 2011, two scientists at Cambridge University devised an app called FluPhone that used Bluetooth and other wireless signals as a proxy for interactions between people and asked users to report flu-like symptoms.[4] Sound familiar?

However, in a three-month pilot study conducted at the time, those scientists leading the survey found that less than 1% of the people living in Cambridge signed up.[5] Now that we are in the middle of a deadly global pandemic, and now that such technology has been put front and centre of our consciousness, willingness to engage with it is considerably higher. People are desperate to get on with their lives and return to some sort of normality. When offered the chance to do just that, why would you not want to seize it?

Lots of Questions; None of Them the Right One

Nevertheless, headlines in the newspapers in recent days have been voicing data privacy concerns in relation to the coronavirus tracing apps, and whether the public should be so quick to allow our governments to implement mass surveillance. Should apps be centralised or decentralised? Should they work using geo-location technology or is Bluetooth less invasive? Will governments look to private firms for help in the development process? Should the public be obliged to download apps, or do we get to choose to opt-in?

At this point, often a comparison is made to various popular cultural examples of dystopian societies, where surveillance has become all encompassing. Take your pick from Black Mirror, George Orwell’s 1984 or Minority Report — the underlying point is the same: we do not want such fiction to become our reality.

But, perhaps the real question to ask is: why do people not realise that we already live in a surveillance society? Why have we normalised this phenomenon to such a degree that most of us do not even question it anymore?

Image for postThe normalisation of surveillance (Source: Lianhao Qu)

A team of researchers from the UK based company Comparitech recently concluded that London is the sixth most-surveilled city in the world, with the other five all being in China. There are more than 627,000 CCTV cameras situated on the streets of London, which equates to about 68 for every 1000 residents[6]. According to the UK Police Association, Britons are caught on camera an average of 70 times a day.[7] But in 1991 there were no more than 10 towns in the UK with systems in place, and these were all run by private entrepreneurs who had been funded by local government schemes.[8]

So, what has changed?

The humble closed-circuit television that was first used by German engineers during World War II to monitor tests of the deadly V2 bomb, has now become a universal feature of modern democracies and autocracies. But it was not until the mid-1990s that this technology arrived into the general public’s consciousness, when the UK government decided to draw up concrete policies to pave the way for a more widespread implementation. It is interesting to see the changes in this policy over time and notice how the surveillance network expanded in a gradual manner — in various stages.

Initially, the government’s early policy stressed the benefits of the technology and how it was useful in preventing and detecting crimes. It launched a series of small-scale pilot projects in a limited number of towns across the country, while at the same time building up political and media support for the technology. In part, it wanted to test out the receptiveness of the population to CCTV and evaluate to what extent the concerns around privacy and civil liberties would pose a stumbling block to wider implementation. But at a time when there was a high level of anxiety about rising crime, the support from the public grew for a solution that promised to alleviate this anxiety.

On the back of this success, the government shifted its policy from the mid-1990s to 2000s to stress how CCTV could also be used to combat antisocial behaviour. What started as small-scale projects, could now be increased to include residential and public spaces. Between 1995 and 2005, the government spent £500 million of public money on extending the country’s CCTV network. [9] All the while the government continued to propagate how effective CCTV was in fighting crime. This effectiveness, by the way, has continually been called into question by the government itself. For example, a House of Lords commissioned report in 2008, called for further clarification after its findings highlighted the lack of formal research into the subject and the reliance on anecdotal evidence from police officers.

As Webster stresses, the CCTV policy then changed again after the 9/11 attacks, when the focus became ensuring national security and reducing terrorist threat. As a result, the government decided to once again expand the network to include transport hubs (train stations and airports) and tourist hotspots that might be potential future targets. But equally this new policy gave the government the scope to introduce features that they saw as add ons to the already existing CCTV technology. For example, in 1996 due to the rising threat from IRA it started using Automatic Number Plate Recognition in London. All vehicles entering the City of London would have their licence plates cross-checked against police databases.[10]

Now ANPR is employed across the nation — notably to enforce London’s congestion charge, and proactively by local councils as an extra revenue stream in the shape of motoring fines.[11] In the last few months, ANPR has even be used to ensure citizens are adhering to the lockdown regulations by not going on non-essential trips.

CCTV is a ubiquitous, normal part of everyday life now. It defines an environment in which successive UK governments have constructed one of the most extensive and technologically advanced systems in the world. It defines a situation where the majority of citizens do not know of these surveillance practices and therefore are unaware of the potential consequences.

A recent article in the FT that suggested that London would make a good testing site for trials where Artificial Intelligence is combined with CCTVs to monitor crowds at large events. This is a far cry from the small scale pilots in towns in 1991, and shows just how quickly things can change. As Webster notes, it is important to recognise that technologies that were originally introduced for one purpose can actually shift and be used for another.[12] A quick dive into Home Office documents on ANPR standards illustrates this where the legal basis for the enforcement of the technology is an amalgamation of the government’s CCTV policies of the last 30 years as outlined above — “ANPR is used to help detect, deter and disrupt criminality at a local, regional and national level. This includes tackling travelling criminals, Organised Crime Groups and terrorists”.[13]

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The Camera Wall Art Exhibit in Toronto (Source: Bernard Hermant)

As with our current situation concerning contact tracing apps, the public were (and still are) fully behind CCTV technology. Successive surveys found that between 60–90% of respondents were in favour of the technology being introduced to the streets of the UK, and that more than 75% say that CCTV makes them feel safer. At the same time these benefits seem to have been enough to allay civil liberties, with only 30% saying they had concerns. [14] But as the example of CCTV shows, we should be wary of policies that evolve over time — the surveillance creep phenomenon — lest we do not question our governments enough during the evolutions of such technology. What we do need to do is instigate a public debate which engages people thoughts, expectations, concerns, interests and interactions to everyday surveillance and thereby develop an atmosphere in which our democratically elected governments are held accountable for each phase of technological iteration that occurs[15].

Dominic Jukes