surveillance

Surveillance

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Gillmor Gang 12.3.11 (TCTV)

Your phone might be spying on you. The many cameras you pass every day can recognize your face. Facebook, despite its grudging concessions, still wants you to broadcast your personal life. “Eye in the sky” drones are already watching over borders; next, they’ll patrol the Olympics. It won’t be long before police drones are omnipresent in the skies over every major city, and then every town. Welcome to the 21st century. Smile! You’re probably on TV.

Especially if you live in the kind of repressive state that imprisons its citizens without trial. (You know, like America, if the US Senate has its way.) According to both Wikileaks and that well-known bastion of the left wing The Wall Street Journal, such regimes have been buying up Western-made high-tech surveillance systems like business travellers on unlimited expense accounts. To quote the former, “companies are making billions selling sophisticated tracking tools to government buyers, flouting export rules, and turning a blind eye to dictatorial regimes that abuse human rights.”

Which kind of puts Facebook privacy violations in perspective, so I’m not going to bash Mark Zuckerberg, for once. The guy probably genuinely believes in the merits of a transparency society where everybody’s life is essentially on display all the time. Or even if he doesn’t, he figures that our ever-doubling tech level means we’re inevitably heading there anyways, so he may as well make a few dozen billion dollars from that sea change while he’s at it. Fair enough.

But a transparent society can’t work if it’s built out of one-way glass. The powers that be are thrilled by the prospect of using all this new surveillance tech to keep an eye on the unruly masses, but they seem much less excited about its effect on their own privacy. The Occupy movement (which, you may recall, I have mixed emotions about) can cite a whole bunch of examples of protestors arrested or shot with rubber bullets for the sin of photographing police, and of the police expelling and restricting media from the evictions in NYC and LA.

Earlier this year the chief minister of India’s Kerala state had a webcam installed in his office. A cheap gimmick, yes, but a powerful symbol. If we’re headed into a world where everything becomes public, so be it–but shouldn’t the first people to surrender their privacy be those in authority?

This is partly an economic issue: if Greece hadn’t lied about its finances for many years, the euro wouldn’t be in quite as parlous a state right now. But mostly it’s a moral one. Why aren’t police, border guards, and the TSA required to carry always-on shoulder cameras while on duty, so that the data recorded can be used in court and subjected to Freedom Of Information requests? Why are vague, unsubstantiated “security reasons” always enough to close doors, shut events, squelch protests, fence off areas from the public, and harass photographers and the media, when more surveillance is supposed to make us more secure?

The answer, of course, is that security is only rarely the real issue. Two-way surveillance, the much-touted transparent society, is about the complex dynamic between the relative merits of privacy and public information–and they do both have their merits. But one-way surveillance is all about raw naked power. It worries me that the powers that be all seem to be touting the former while actually trying to implement the latter.

Image credit: zigazou76, Flickr.