By Simon Dürr

Does fear of terrorism warrant limitless surveillance?

As you walk around a mid-sized city in the Western world you will pass around 30 to 70 surveillance cameras. In cities such as London, in the world’s most surveilled nation – the United Kingdom – that number can reach 300 or more cameras per day.

There are plenty of reasons for a government or a private company to install CCTV in public spaces. Property protection, identification of criminals and deterrence are a few examples. In recent times, however, almost every interior minister around the world is demanding increased surveillance capabilities for mainly one reason: to combat terrorism. This is a result of a subconscious feeling that has emerged in many western civil societies in recent years. People are more than twice as likely to say that the world has become a more dangerous place compared to 1990, when in fact every year less people die of violence from war and terrorism.

It is to wonder whether we are really so afraid of a few terrorists that we are willing to give away our privacy, and with that a part of our personal freedom.

“In absolute numbers, being killed by a terrorist is substantially less likely than drowning in a bathtub.” Likewise, more left handed people die in the world every year because they use tools meant for right handed people. It would be absurd to consider the prospects of a government spending several tens of billions to prevent people from drowning in the bathtub or from using a tool meant for the other hand, yet many people seem perfectly content with the same spending for more surveillance in public spaces. Of course, that is not to say that spending on surveillance is completely unwarranted. Terror protection is an essential branch of any state’s security apparatus. However, there should be a balance between the funding it receives and the threat it addresses.

China, which is rapidly moving to overtake the UK as the world’s most surveilled nation, can offer a glimpse into one possible future. In a test that the BBC conducted in Guiyang, Chinese authorities were able to locate and apprehend BBC reporter John Sudworth at a previously unknown location in only 7 minutes. They were able to pull this off with sophisticated face recognition technologies that constantly match people’s faces to their ID card and track all moving objects in public spaces. Chinese authorities are very proud of this system, claiming it will help to drastically reduce crime in the most notorious cities in China. Facial recognition technology has also been adopted for other purposes. In China these systems are being used to fine people for using too much toilet paper in restrooms or to publicly shame jaywalkers, displaying their name and home address on a screen next to the crosswalk. It is not unthinkable that politicians in Europe could also get creative and use the capabilities of the technology for other non-surveillance purposes.

Western security agencies and interior ministers can only dream of the capabilities Chinese authorities have, as western civil society is more critical of overreaching privileges for a nation state to monitor its citizens. Critics of surveillance instruments such as ‘Prism’, the system US authorities were using before it was exposed by Edward Snowden, often point out that technological advances could fundamentally alter the relationship between individual and state, with chilling consequences for freedom of speech and assembly. While government agencies often tout successes of face-recognition demo systems they often fail to acknowledge the limitations of the technology.  A pilot project started in Berlin has recently installed facial detection systems in a train station to test automatic identification of fugitives and crime suspects. The interior ministry is proudly tweeting about it:

What they fail to reveal is that their acclaimed 70 % recognition rate is piteous in a real world scenario. With an assumed (and very modest) false positive rate of 0.5 % the error rate of such a surveillance system would be about 99 % and almost exclusively, innocent persons would be flagged.

Consider one of the many examples of recent terrorist attacks in Europe. The truck driver that killed eight at a Christmas market in Berlin was known to authorities long before the attack. He could have been arrested if European police coordinated and co-operated effectively, and if German police had been more careful in monitoring their suspect rather than looking for the needle in a giant haystack of data. Adding more surveillance in the majority of cases is akin to adding more hay to the haystack and does little but aid the terrorists.

It remains a task of civil society to collectively overcome the fear of dying in a highly improbable terrorist attack. Rather, civil society should stand up for personal freedoms and ensure that we maintain a balance between necessary and unwarranted surveillance. Technology can support law enforcement and protect society in a reasonable way without turning the world into an Orwellian dystopia.

By Simon Dürr

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