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Opinion In our surveillance society, somebody is always watching


Ziya Tong is an award-winning broadcaster and author of The Reality Bubble: Blind Spots, Hidden Truths, and the Dangerous Illusions That Shape Our World, from which this essay is adapted.

In the 21st century, there are cameras everywhere – except where our food comes from, where our energy comes from, and where our waste goes.

“To the lady in the brown dress,” the voice from the CCTV camera said, “blond hair, with the male in the black suit, could you please pick that cup up and put it in the bin.” The speaking camera is one of a network of 144 such surveillance devices in the town of Middlesbrough, England. There are more than 20 towns in England where Big Brother doesn’t just watch over you, he barks out orders and literally tells you what to do. For stopping litterbugs, the approach seems harmless. In North London, however, where similar cameras are installed on public-housing developments, they are oppressive, especially when people standing outside their own homes are told they are loitering. But this type of talking surveillance is not just in poor or middle-class areas, either. In Mandelieu-la-Napoule, one of the French Riviera’s wealthiest towns, talking CCTV cameras were installed to reprimand people for infractions including bad parking, not picking up dog poop, littering and other antisocial behaviours. As the deputy director of Le Parisien newspaper wrote, the new system is like “a voice from the heavens to warn you not to step out of line.”

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All of us are surrounded by cameras today, most of them silent. Britain, home of George Orwell, has the dubious honour of having the greatest number of surveillance cameras in Europe per capita, with more than six million CCTVs, or about one for every 10 people. Britain also utilizes automatic number-plate recognition, and with approximately 9,000 cameras, it captures up to 40 million pieces of data in the form of number plates every day and is currently holding about 20 billion records. As a report by the British government’s independent Surveillance Camera Commissioner notes, this makes it “one of the largest non-military databases in the U.K.”

China has not surpassed Britain’s number of surveillance cameras per capita, but with its massive population, it certainly has the greatest number in operation of any country. There are more than 170 million CCTV cameras installed in the country, and that number is expected to jump to between 400 million and 600 million by 2020.

Networked with artificial intelligence (AI) and facial recognition, the new surveillance hubs in China – with towering floor-to-ceiling digital screens and glowing semicircular command and control desks – are as sleek as anything you might see in a futuristic sci-fi film. In one of these hubs, in the city of Guiyang, the database contains a digital image of every single resident. For local citizens, the networked cameras track a person’s face from their ID card and trace their movements back through the city over a timeline of one week. Connecting a person’s face to their licence plates, and expanding through their contact list of friends and family, the system also knows “who you are and who you frequently meet.” In addition to recognizing individual faces, some systems can estimate age, ethnicity and gender.

To see how the Guiyang system works, the BBC designed a clever Where’s Waldo?-type experiment. They set their reporter John Sudworth free in the streets to find out how long it took to track him down. Flagged as a “suspect” for the purposes of the trial, Mr. Sudworth was no match for the AI-powered eyes. He was tracked down and apprehended in just seven minutes.

But we are not only tracked outdoors. If you walk through any shopping mall, office or commercial space and look up, you will see the ubiquitous black domes. They are tinted so that the camera can look out but you can’t see where the lens is pointed.

Increasingly, our conversations are also recorded by invisible ears. As William G. Staples writes in Everyday Surveillance, “Public buses in San Francisco; Athens, Georgia; Baltimore; Eugene, Oregon; Traverse City, Michigan; Hartford, Connecticut; and Columbus, Ohio, have been equipped with sophisticated audio surveillance systems to listen in on the conversations of passengers.” And in Las Vegas, Detroit and Chicago, the Intellistreets system has been installed. These are street lights and lampposts with embedded microphones and cameras that are capable of secretly recording pedestrians’ conversations.

At our workplaces, even office cubicles are increasingly sur­veilled. As an article in MIT Technology Review notes, this form of high-tech office surveillance is invisible, because “sensors are hidden in lights, on walls, under desks – anywhere that allows them to measure things like where people are and how much they are talking or moving.” All of this, of course, is under the guise of improving productivity and cost savings. Companies such as Humanyze provide what they call “people analytics.” Workers are given ID badges with embedded microphones, Bluetooth sensors and accelerometers, and data is quietly collected behind the scenes as people go about their day. The idea is that by tracking where the workers are, who they are talking to and for how long, management can, for instance, understand which departments have the best information flows and make strategic decisions as a result, even improving communication through floor planning. The system also tells managers how productive people are by analyzing how much time a person spends socializing at work. Eerily, the devices can even track “how long an individual goes without uttering a word to anyone – and when that word does come, where does it happen and to whom is it addressed.”

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Right now, a full three-quarters of U.S. companies subject their employees to regular workplace surveillance. And with the current video-surveillance market worth US$36-billion and projected to reach US$68-billion by 2023, surveillance is constantly being sold to us as a tool that enhances efficiency, safety and security. But behind these promises there is a darker, less benign force at work. As Prof. Staples writes, modern surveillance strategies are “used by both public and private organizations to influence our choices, change our habits, ‘keep us in line,’ monitor our performance, gather knowledge or evidence about us, assess deviations, and in some cases, exact penalties.”

It is not said often enough: What is most eroded in a surveillance society is human trust. Instead of trusting each other, we put that trust in spying eyes, GPS trackers and networked machines. As employees who work offsite, commercial truckers experience this kind of insidious monitoring on a daily basis. Electronic monitoring has become a high-tech way for managers to watch over their performance. And fleet owners do make a good argument for the case: Monitoring results in more frequent seat-belt use, higher productivity, less speeding, less overtime and lower fuel usage and thus a lower carbon footprint. On paper, this sounds great, but drivers tell a different tale. For them, being constantly tracked by telematics is dehumanizing and oppressive.

Telematics refers to the recording and tracking of long-distance data, primarily vehicle data – which includes mapping and routes, driving speed, idling time, acceleration and braking, and seat-belt usage, to name a few – and is designed to keep workers constantly on task and operating optimally, essentially behaving like human robots. After each shift, the data is uploaded to a computer and then transmitted to a data centre, where it is algorithmically analyzed. While it’s good for business, for the drivers to have to explain any deviation from the path or time misspent is humiliating. As one driver put it, telematics “should be known as Harassamatics.” Another stated that the data made him look guilty when he was innocent: “They assume that every driver is cheating and stealing from the company, they just haven’t caught them yet. Telematics brings a whole new perspective to this world of assumption. … Every time telematics has been thrown in my face, it has been presented to me that I was ‘taking [an] extra break without recording it.’ In fact, I was dealing with irate or disgruntled customers to the company’s benefit. Of course the assumption was that I was stealing from the company.”

Telematics may seem intrusive, but it is nothing compared to the new brain-surveillance system in China. Here, workers are given special caps, some with cameras attached, that monitor the brainwaves of the worker. According to an article in the South China Morning Post, “Concealed in regular safety helmets or uniform hats, these lightweight, wireless sensors constantly monitor the wearer’s brainwaves and stream the data to computers that use artificial intelligence algorithms to detect emotional spikes such as depression, anxiety or rage.” The technology is already in wide-scale use and has been deployed in the military, public transport, factories and in state-owned companies. Proponents of the system argue that it has boosted efficiency and workers make fewer mistakes. Opponents say that even emotions must be limited for high productivity. It is turning human workers into machines.

We are being watched, indoors and out, at work and at home. There is no sphere in which we are free of surveillance. And while our fears tend to be directed to hackers spying through baby monitors, or peeping Toms peering through our windows, the biggest window into our private worlds stares right at us every day: the black pinhole of our webcams.

In 2014, Edward Snowden revealed that Britain’s GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) had been tapping into British citizens’ home webcams under a program called Optic Nerve. For six months in 2008, more than 1.8 million Yahoo! chat accounts were compromised as agents siphoned millions of images through home laptop and desktop computer cameras. In this most private of spheres, ordinary, innocent citizens were the targets. The system gobbled up whatever was before it, snapping a photo once every five minutes. This was a test bed for facial-recognition experiments. People at home were unaware, of course, that they were being watched by the government, and as a result, 11 per cent of the images captured by officials contained nudity and were marked as explicit. Mr. Snowden’s leaked documents revealed only what was swept up in half a year.

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Together, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain and the United States form the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, with capabilities to surveil vast populations across the globe. We still have no way of knowing how much access they have to our private video and audio communications, but we do know that their systems grow more sophisticated, more expansive and more intrusive every year.

The optic nerve, it’s worth remembering, transmits visual information to the brain, and is also the location of the human blind spot in each eye. It allows us to see, but its location is also hidden from our sight.

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