Surveillance in Public Spaces

The space for privacy has been rapidly shrinking in the last decade worldwide. In 2013 American whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked information on a massive global surveillance campaign being conducted by the US government in partnership with the Australian, British and Canadian governments. Facebook and Google are capturing and storing ever more detailed information about users and able to make highly accurate behavioural predictions based off this data. But perhaps most worryingly, closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV) have quietly become ubiquitous on street corners and buildings in cities around the world.

Today CCTV monitoring of cities is an accepted norm. CCTV cameras fade into the background of urban landscapes effortlessly and the public pays little attention to them. But active continuous monitoring of public spaces directly threatens privacy in public spaces. In fact, privacy in public spaces looks set to disappear in the near future – if it hasn’t already.

Today governments and law enforcement agencies have a slew of technologies available to them that enable them to recognize and track specific individuals in public. Biometric verification is any means by which a person can be uniquely identified. We’re all familiar with the fingerprint as a personal identifier and it is the most widespread biometric verification method in use. In recent years however interest in the field has broadened and a field of behavioural biometrics has developed around identifying people using behavioural indicators.

The most famous of these alternative biometric technologies is facial recognition technology. The technology dates back to the 1960s but has recently begun being actively used by law enforcement agencies. While the technology still faces some accuracy challenges it is rapidly becoming more accurate and effective. More interestingly, facial recognition is slowly becoming ubiquitous in other aspects of the economy. Smartphones now allow users to unlock them with their faces, restaurants allow diners to reorder past purchases with simply their faces and a growing number of airports allow you to pass through immigration with just your face.

But facial recognition is not full proof. If you cover your face, it simply doesn’t work. This technique is actively being used by people to avoid being identified. For example, over the last few months massive protests have raged in Hong Kong. China – which has political authority over Hong Kong – is a particularly passionate user of facial recognition technologies in public spaces. As a result protesters have resorted to wearing masks and scarfs to avoid being identified and tracked by Chinese authorities.

In response China has developed and begun testing gait recognition technology to identify people (gait is a person’s manner of walking). Chinese AI startup Watrix can now identify a person from 50 meters away even if their face is covered and back is turned. The software ingests and analyzes thousands of datapoints about a person’s gait including their body contour, the angle of their arm movement and more. Police in at least 3 Chinese cities have already run trials of the technology. Gait recognition is a step-up from facial recognition technologies and its widespread usage is likely in the coming years.

But one final technology exists that might trump the surveillance power of them all. Earlier this year news broke of a secretive US military technology nicknamed Jetson that can successfully identify a person by their heartbeat using a laser from up to 200 meters away, even with their clothes on. The technology behind Jetson is simply astounding and is straight out of science fiction. Heartbeats, unlike faces or fingerprints, cannot be modified in any way and everyone has a unique cardiac signature. However, the technology suffers from limitations that constrain its viability today. For example, it takes Jetson 30 seconds to collect sufficient data to identify a target and only works if the target is sitting or standing still. Nonetheless, researchers are likely to find ways to solve for these challenges and make Jetson more broadly useable.

Facial, gait recognition and technologies like Jetson are arming anyone with access to video footage of a public space with the capacity to identify and track people. While governments will be the prime users of these technologies, private companies are increasingly deploying facial recognition in commercial settings and tracking people accordingly. Behavioural biometrics will spell the end of privacy in public spaces if regulation is not put in place to protect it. How should citizens respond? What, if anything can government do to regulate privacy in public spaces?

San Francisco recently became the first city in the world to ban the use of facial recognition by law enforcement agencies. Similarly, a coalition of 30 civil society organizations in the United States is calling for a federal ban of facial recognition. News that the London Metropolitan Police secretly provided data to the developers of the Kings Cross Estate for a covert facial recognition system have been met with outrage. This is but a first in what is likely to be a series of controversies around the use of behavioural biometrics by companies and governments in the coming years.
A free society hold personal liberty as a core value. A free society is one in which everyone benefits from a significant degree of privacy in private and in public. The world is hurtling into a dystopian future in which privacy no longer exists in public. More worrying still, researchers have shown how wifi routers can be used to identify people even within private homes. The quiet proliferation of behavioural biometrics threatens personal liberty and privacy and must be confronted.

Citizens must demand that governments move to protect their privacy in public. Just as GDPR and CCPA have forced companies to obtain user consent around storing and processing personal data, governments must be forced to create regulation that forces private companies to explicitly gain user consent for the use of behavioural biometrics on an ongoing basis. Similarly, governments must place extremely stringent requirements and controls on the use of behavioural biometrics by law enforcement agencies. Continuous monitoring and surveillance without reasonable grounds of suspicion is not a right of the government and directly violates a personal liberty. The fourth amendment to the US constitution explicitly grants US citizens the right to protection from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. Every free society needs to create equivalent protections for citizens from being subject to behavioural biometrics without consent. In the absence of action, the alternative scenario of pervasive public surveillance is deeply troubling and will further contribute to the global erosion of freedom and democracy.

This piece was originally published here.






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