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Reexamining Surveillance Technology

Updated: Mar 15

Privacy is looking more and more like a scarce luxury. New technologies, like facial recognition technology, surveillance drones and license plate readers are commonplace. 


Proponents of this tech believe that increased surveillance will lead to greater public safety. If more data about the general public is collected, then the authorities will get better at arresting criminals, public health hazards will be easier to identify and commerce will become more streamlined.


However, corruption and private interests also intersect with this technology. It’s been said many times: an instrument is only as good or bad as its user. Perhaps that’s an oversimplified platitude, but it makes sense here.


Facial recognition technology archives face data in public areas. It then compares the images with millions of ID photos to establish a matching identity. Such techniques can be used by law enforcement to locate and arrest dangerous criminals. 


Unfortunately, the technology is not always accurate and can lead to innocent people being arrested. In fact, a U.S. government study has shown that facial recognition software developed in the U.S. is more likely to misidentify minorities compared to white people. Will surveillance serve to entrench inequality?


Three major technology companies have expressed reservations about the police using facial recognition technology. The International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) has said that it will stop all research. Meanwhile, Amazon and Microsoft are pausing any plans to sell facial recognition software to police. 


Drones known for their weaponized applications. However, they deliver intelligence as well. Surveillance drones are used to spy on people from an aerial point of view. After the death of George Floyd, massive protests for racial justice occurred throughout the United States. During the protests, federal aerial surveillance tools monitored protestors in 15 cities. 

Life in many American cities is being recorded by thousands of security cameras. In fact, in New York City, over 25,500 cameras are observing daily life. According to ABC, these cameras are disproportionately located in neighborhoods with non-white majorities. Critics are concerned that heightened levels of security cameras could worsen pre-existing problems of police discrimination.


One troubling risk involved in surveillance is character assassination, which is the deliberate and malicious tainting of one’s credible reputation. We cannot assume that advances in surveillance mean advances in ethics. Let’s say the government records a private conversation between you and a close friend. A snippet from that conversation could be taken out of context for the sake of character assassination. Such tactics can be used by corrupt politicians who would like to silence their opponents. 


We must reevaluate our concepts of privacy in the ever-progressing realm of technology. Many think tanks and universities are already involved in this endeavor. Politicians and the general public must follow suit. 


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.


Sources

“ACLU v. CBP - FOIA Case for Records Relating to Government’s Aerial Surveillance of Protesters.” ACLU, 7 December 2021,  https://www.aclu.org/cases/aclu-v-cbp-foia-case-records-relating-governments-aerial-surveillance-protesters.


El-Bawab, Nadine, and Kiara Alfonseca. “More facial recognition technology reported in non-white areas of NYC: Amnesty International.” ABC News, 15 February 2022, https://abcnews.go.com/US/facial-recognition-technology-reported-white-areas-nyc-amnesty/story?id=82798528.


Hao, Karen. “A US government study confirms most face recognition systems are racist.” MIT Technology Review, 20 December 2019,  https://www.technologyreview.com/2019/12/20/79/ai-face-recognition-racist-us-government-nist%20study/.


Heilweil, Rebecca. “Big tech companies back away from selling facial recognition to police. That’s progress.” Vox, 11 June 2020,  https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/6/10/21287194/amazon-microsoft-ibm-facial-recognition-mora%20torium-police.


Klosowski, Thorin. “Facial Recognition Is Everywhere. Here's What We Can Do About It.” The New York Times, 15 July 2020,  https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/blog/how-facial-recognition-works/.


McMillian, John. “The (Character) Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. | Origins.” Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspectivehttps://origins.osu.edu/history-news/character-assassination-martin-luther-king-jr.

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