The current debate around surveillance focuses almost entirely on crime prevention and detection. Those who feel happy and secure that someone ‘up there’ is watching their every move – an interesting modern take on the religious belief in an all-seeing God – argue that only criminals need fear this technology, while the innocent have nothing to worry about.
What an utterly credulous assertion that is, based as it is on the hopeful presumptions that the State is, and always will be, a purely benign institution; that the data will never fall into the hands of unscrupulous corporations; and that criminals actively care whether they are deterred or not!
I have blogged previously on how a simple error in a national database selling advice to finance providers about people’s creditworthiness last year deprived me for a time of my ability to spend or invest my own money; which, for a change, I had plenty of. But it could not be challenged or investigated because the error had also deprived me of a verifiable identity, and thus my right to question the data.
So I have already discovered for myself that technology does not discriminate between guilt and innocence; the innocent have just as much to fear as the guilty – probably more, as the guilty have already chosen the path of crime and thus, renounced all fear. Data held on you can easily be corrupted, whether deliberately or accidentally. Anything you do or say (or reveal that you only think) will be recorded, stored in perpetuity regardless of your wishes to the contrary, and may be used against you in future. How thrilling, to think of someone reading out this blog at my future show trial! And increasingly, you have no choice in the matter: your personal data is all out in the cloud.
Protecting citizens against crime can easily become protecting citizens against the consequences of their own actions and decisions. People will become passive objects of protection, either by the State or by giant corporations.
This may start with, for instance, deterring street crime. Who could object? But open-access to your communications can not only provide security services with a means to prevent acts of terrorism; it provides prospective employers and insurers with an unquestionable means of evaluating your personality and attitudes, checking-up on your friends and associates. It enables advertisers to channel products to you, which may have benefits in more efficient use of resources, but also has the potential to ensure that you consume a smaller range of products from fewer manufacturers, limiting your life choices and, ultimately, your room for personal growth. The greater the protection that is supposedly provided by a higher authority, the greater the degree of infantilisation that will be experienced.
Can this be demonstrated?
A recently introduced technology called Hawkeye employs a computer to resolve disputed line-calls in tennis. As the game has got faster, it has become more difficult for human line judges to call a ball in or out. Players may now challenge up to three line-calls in each set of games, using Hawkeye as the arbiter. I observed while watching the recent Wimbledon tournament, that whereas in the past the umpires would habitually overrule incorrect line calls from their superior vantage-point, they are now much more reluctant to volunteer decisions unprompted by the players. Undermined by the technology, they have become less willing to trust their own judgement. I don’t see how this can possibly be a good thing.
To give a maybe fantastical idea of how the current technology is developing, you could be going about your normal, everyday business when an ambulance arrives at the door and a paramedic informs you that there is an 80 per cent probability that you are about to have an accident and you should immediately change your behaviour. Their intervention will have been prompted by realtime analysis of data obtained from photometric sensors attached to your clothing and personal equipment, and implanted everywhere in your immediate environment; analysis of your actions over time will have produced a behavioural profile resulting in a score for your accident-proneness in all situations.
And what if the label on your bottle of wine could measure and report to your health practitioner, the rate at which you were consuming it? There is a real danger that ‘Big Brother’ will instead become ‘Big Nanny’. The NHS will become the NPHS – the National Prevention of Harm Service. Is that what we really want?
Counter to this, is the belief that the technology actually empowers the individual. A development such as Google Glass enables the user to interface intuitively, through wearable media and head-up display, with not only their immediate environment, but also their personal data, the worldwide web and other useful information held in the cloud, creating a powerful tool for analysis and decision-making. Gone are the days when you would meet an acquaintance in a supermarket aisle and struggle to remember who the hell they were, and where on Earth you met them before? You will just re-run the movie!
On the other hand, does the technology not make you more, not less reliant on these external sources of memory and knowledge? I once shot 800 frames of 35mm film while on a ‘holiday of a lifetime’ cruise around the eastern Mediterranean, visiting sites of classical antiquity. A few years later, I could not remember a single thing about it – I had lost most of the slides, the ones I could find were meaningless. Was this pile of stones Ephesus or Aspendos? I had entrusted my entire visual experience to an ‘infallible’ external medium and when it failed, so did my memories.
The argument in the end is not about establishing guilt and innocence, but about choosing between the individual and the public good. I believe the public good will prevail, as the population continues to increase and the world shrinks; however, the increasing pervasiveness of security technology can only ensure that powerful vested interests come to the fore, imposing increasing control and conformity, robbing humans of free will and powers of self-determination; our key evolutionary drivers.
The flabby, well-protected society of the future will be vulnerable to as-yet undetermined threats from beyond the margin, as well as from power-seekers within.
It’s your call.