Big Brother Is Watching You

Smart car (HUD) , Autonomous self-driving mode vehicle on metro city road iot concept with graphic sensor radar signal system and internet sensor connect. Shutterstock

In the past few years, surveillance cameras and facial recognition technology have become more and more popular, with a fast-growing number of cities implementing them throughout the urban area. Questions regarding both the accuracy of the technology and potential violations of privacy and human rights are rising just as quickly as the usage.

Chao Roi, a police officer in the Chinese Chong-Ching province, was on duty when he received an alert from an automated facial recognition system, which had sighted a man who was suspected of murder and was at large since 2002. Just three days after the automatic sighting, the police apprehended the fugitive, who later confessed to committing the murder.

Stories like this, where facial recognition plays a crucial role in helping police solve crime, have been common in Chong-Ching. The province in south-east China, with a population of fifteen million people, has outfitted its streets with some three million cameras to match.

The surveillance system scans the facial features it picks up in the street in real time, and creates a virtual “face map” of the city, after which the profiles can be matched with the features of fugitives in the police database. If there’s a match of sufficient accuracy, generally defined at upward of 60 percent, the system sends a notification to police headquarters. According to the Chinese Homeland Security office, China is projected to have 626 million closed-circuit cameras in use by next year.

What’s surprising is that many Western cities are not far behind the Chinese model. News broke this past summer that Transport for London used 260 wifi hotspots at stations to identify passenger’s smartphones and accurately track their movements and travel. A few weeks later, a report surfaced that the private operator of Kings Cross train station was using facial recognition technology without notifying the public. After a loud public outcry, and an inquiry by state investigators, the program was shut down.

Today, even in Israel, urban planners are maximizing technology and information infrastructure in order to better manage cities, in order to improve responses to problems and automate governance – to create what’s being called “Smart Cities”.

The SMART CITY 2020 conference, which took place over the past few days, focused on a variety of challenges and projections, such as where the line is drawn in regards to technology, or should enforcement policy look like the China model or the model used today on Highway 6. The highway is an example of a camera system that is already in use which can send automated speeding tickets without any human police action.

Systems such as these are problematic from a legal standpoint, and experts at the conference claimed that local administrations needed to install systems that cannot be used to identify defining features or private information. In order to uphold global privacy standards which are laid out in international human rights treaties, limits need to be placed on the collection of biometric information, of both people with criminal records and of regular citizens.

Another issue that was discussed and which is of public interest is the question of ownership of the data. Does the vast amount of information collected belong to the local municipality or to the technology company who collected it? Municipalities acquire huge amounts of data, ranging from electricity and water bills to more sensitive information, and it’s not clear how much control they have over the data that is collected.

Cities around the world understand the gravity of the issues, and are collaborating with legal experts to draft contracts with service providers that allow the local governments access to the data and to implement regular inspections, which insure that the data is collected and stored properly at any given moment. Whole chapters of these agreements address citizens’ privacy rights. In Israel, these conversations are not yet happening, and local governments are employing data collection startups without giving any thought to the legal or moral implications. It is vital that the central government act as the responsible adult, before the local municipalities begin systematically violating the rights of their citizens.

About the Author
Ranit Nahum-HaLevi is a journalist with more than 20 years, in both print and online media. Between 2008 and 2014 she served as a reporter at the real estate section of the business newspaper “The Marker”, part of the Haaretz group. Currently, she edits the Commercial Real Estate Magazine of "The Marker", research assistant in high-tech incubators and runs the blog StartFromBereshit which provides a platform for Israeli technological innovation in real estate, construction and mobility.
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