Twenty years ago, when I first travelled to Belfast, what struck me was the CCTV everywhere. There was no doubt that I was constantly being recorded. This was before 9/11, before the Patriot Act, before mass online surveillance. I was spooked, even as I realized that the situation likely required such oversight.
Now governments are grappling with using facial recognition software. It was recently employed at a soccer match in Wales — one of the first major test cases. The software scans the crowds and matches faces to information already in law enforcement databases. The goal is to find someone wanted for a crime.
Putting aside concerns about this software’s accuracy, the issue at its heart is the right to privacy. Proponents of such surveillance argue: “If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to worry about.” But who decides what’s “nothing?”
In East Germany, nearly 2.5% of the population worked as “unofficial informants,” spying on friends, neighbors and families. There was no such thing as “nothing.” Everything could be deemed useful information. The secret police kept files on 5.6 million of its citizens — a third of its population!
This may be an extreme example, but think about the mass surveillance that goes on the US, where we’re dealing with the fallout from abuse of FISA warrants. This isn’t limited to extremist countries.
The Bill of Rights exists for this very reason — to protect citizens from government overreach and intrusion into private lives. That should be the baseline; surveillance should be the exception.
Law enforcement is naturally inclined to avail itself of technologies that help catch bad guys. But as we are confronted with these new technologies, we must ask the age-old question: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes” — who watches the watchers?
Shana Goldberg may be reached at email@example.com
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