Cyprus Mail
CM Regular Columnist Opinion

Big brother is watching: the rise of electronic surveillance

epa07469182 An Huawei employee introduces face recognition and tracking technology to a client in Huawei headquarters' showroom in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China, 28 March 2019. EPA-EFE/ALEKSANDAR PLAVEVSKI

By Andonis Vassiliades

The sociologist Emile Durkheim explored the relationship between the individual and society and how social order is maintained. The transition from traditionalism to modernity means that old methods of keeping individuals under surveillance and control shift from informal means (e.g. the neighbourhood, the family, the community) to formal means administered by the state and its apparatus (e.g. laws, police, courts).

Though the shift to modernity poses serious challenges to maintaining order, Durkheim did not shy away from the claim that the loss of traditionalism was replaced and compensated by individualism. Though individualism had to be controlled, it afforded nonetheless a sense of liberation from the tyranny of the community collective. Modernity offered individuals now living in a society of ‘strangers’ a sense of freedom.

In the course of time and profound social change, surveillance and control become more centralised and the state exercises a monopoly of coercion. In the process of a never ending struggle to deal with internal and external threats (real or imaginary), order and security, the state protects itself with a panoply of ‘weapons’ by constantly inventing new methods of surveillance or upgrading and refining existing ones.

Electronic surveillance includes computers, the internet, mobile phones, cameras, social networks, biometrics, aerial, digital technology, data profiling, corporate and state shared intelligence data, satellite imagery, radio frequency identification, tagging, global positioning systems, microchip implants and more. Two of these, face recognition and microchip implants, are of particular interest.

Face recognition (FR) biometric scans record the geometry of the face by concentrating on distinctive features known as the ‘golden triangle’ – from the eyes, cheeks, nose and mouth to the chin – to create a face print. Once a face print is achieved it is compared to all available face prints stored in the database of the system to see if a match exists to identify individuals. It requires stationed (as in streets or shopping centres) or mobile (as in police vans) camera systems in both private and public domains to capture and process individuals’ face. Given its infinite possibilities of scanning people without interruption, FR allows easy and quick access to a vast database of individuals for surveillance, law enforcement and national security considerations.

In China for example, where an advance system is deployed and which is connected to a network of CCTV cameras, FR can scan up to two billion faces within a few seconds.

The UK authorities promote FR as an invaluable tool in identifying individuals and fighting crime. Three police forces (South Wales, Leicestershire and the Metropolitan) are known to experiment with the technology. There are no technological or financial barriers for putting the pilot projects to widespread use.

There are though reservations about the legality of their use and breach of privacy. The legal challenge brought against the police use of FR techniques in Cardiff; the man who received a spot fine for covering his face from FR cameras in Romford; or Amazon’s refusal to make its FR software available (though overturned by shareholders) are just a few examples.

In the US, although some states have banned the technology until further investigation about its possible misuse and violation of civil liberties, research suggests that state agencies and private organisations are using FR covertly and without any legal basis.

FR technology may not be at present altogether accurate but its popularity and attraction in creating a rich database for the recognition of individuals means that its broader, universal deployment for the surveillance of vast numbers of people at little cost is but a matter of time.

Human microchip implants (MCIs) have been in use since 1998. They are typically a device which is implanted in a person. It contains a unique ID number which can be linked to information contained in an external database, such as personal identification, law enforcement, medical history, ailments, drugs, medication and contacts.

Although the technology’s forced use is currently outlawed, in the US, UK, Australia, Sweden and Germany anecdotal evidence (reliable records are still lacking) suggests that thousands have accepted the technology on a voluntary basis and have had MCIs injected in their body to act as a substitute key card for house security systems, house and office entry, bank transactions, rail travel cards, home entertainment, storage of personal details and more.

For consumers, MCIs turn their bearers into contactless points for convenience and access to facilities and services including medical and health provision. But for the authorities and security organisations the devices offer a convenient and efficient means of tracking their bearers once ‘pick-up’ points or ‘readers’ have been installed. The possibilities offered by the technology for surveillance are infinite. Currently, various so-called ‘bio-hacking’ firms and agencies are actively collaborating and researching MCIs for their development, promotion and marketing.

Technological advances in surveillance cannot be isolated from broader social developments in western democracies. These include: political shifts to authoritarian rule; ruling through fear and intimidation; attempts at media censorship, manipulation of news, propaganda and fake news; abrasive and despotic leaders who cannot accept criticism and react with vitriolic responses; the expansion of unaccountable police and security operations; the targeting of specific social, religious or political groups; and the overall shift to nationalist party politics.

In this volatile context, electronic surveillance adds to the risk of turning liberal democracies into dystopian states. The towering Leviathan which is emerging may go far beyond JL Talmon and Sheldon Wolin’s totalitarian democracy and inverted totalitarianism respectively.

In allegorical terms, we are in the vicinity of The Prisoner, the 1960s British sci-fi television series where in the mysterious ‘village’ individuals are subject to continuous monitoring and surveillance by CCTV, identity theft, mind control, dream manipulation and physical and psychological coercion to conform. The names of individuals, their personal and social identity are replaced by numbers so as to ensure that the process of dehumanisation and the subjugation of citizens to the whims of Big Brother are final.

If we are not in the ‘village’ of The Prisoner, we are approaching the world of the sci-fi film series The Hunger Games based on Suzanne Collins’ 2008 novels. That world is about single-minded tyranny through constant monitoring and surveillance based on FR and MCIs that act as tracking devices as well as tools in engineering individuals’ decensitisation to violence, oppression, exploitation and submission to the higher authority’s definition of social order and conformity.

States’ never ending pursuit of social order and national security is transforming what are now managed and inverted democracies into ‘total institutions’. They cultivate and establish the moral, economic, political, social and cultural rules and through a sophisticated surveillance network, are beginning to determine and control every aspect of their citizens’ private and public lives.

In Emile Durkheim’s traditional community we were under the tyranny of the watchful eye of the neighbour and the oppression of close familiarity. In modernity we are fast coming under the watchful eye of a new collective – the state – and the oppression of alienation and dissociation from each other.

George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Franz Kafka’s The Trial are fictional dystopias but which are ominously closing in on reality.


Andonis Vassiliades is an emeritus professor


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