It’s hard to discuss public surveillance without immediately being asked about privacy issues. As technologists working on computer-based surveillance, it’s tempting to say this is outside our area of expertise, but we believe there may be a moral imperative to state our views on this thorny issue.
Firstly, it would seem public perception of CCTV surveillance has changed over the years.
Some 20 years ago, if I’d mentioned Big Brother to a class they would all think of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the abuse of video surveillance by a totalitarian state. Now they’re more likely to associate it with covorting housemates in the hit reality TV show.
The very idea of being watched has become normalised, and is no longer associated with Orwell’s horrific, dystopian image of “a boot stamping on a human face – for ever”.
In the UK, despite notable complaints by civil libertarians, the general public appears to like CCTV. CCTV is perceived to provide safety in car parks and public spaces and people need to feel safe and secure.
Indeed, in the late 1990s, public CCTV was first installed to clean up crime and vandalism in troubled London suburbs such as Brixton. The result? Local councils in cooperation with police caught the criminals and vandals and removed signs of crime such as graffitti and broken windows.
With the signs of crime removed, the public began to visit the shops again and the streets gradually became safer.
This strategy worked so well that the cameras became redundant because no crime was being observed. But when the council tried to remove the cameras and deploy them elsewhere there was pubic outcry – people believed that CCTV meant safe streets.
No-one really expects privacy in a public street, but they do expect safety.
Less intrusive, more effective
It could be argued (very convincingly, we believe) that it’s unreasonable to expect privacy, in the sense of the right to remain anonymous, in public areas such as hotels, shopping malls or railway stations.
The London Tube bombings in 2005, or the 2008 Taj Mahal Palace bombings in Mumbai are just two of many reminders that terror attacks are no longer confined to airports.
And we shouldn’t forget that the use of CCTV for face recognition is a far less intrusive method of identifying members of the public than the traditional inspection of identity papers.
Giving the game away
The strange thing today is that many people are voluntarily throwing away their privacy by revealing intimate details on public websites and social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.
Once a face image is uploaded to the web it is almost impossible to erase it completely. This issue is now posing a risk to undercover police and people in witness protection programs, where there are legitimate reasons for switching identity.
While some aspects of privacy remain sacrosanct, it’s our belief that the ability and possibly even the right to remain anonymous in public spaces is diminishing over time.
The very concept of privacy must be redefined in an ever-more transparent world.