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Illustration by Gayathri Satheesh

You Are Probably Being Recorded Right Now, Should You Care?

Digital surveillance is essential to maintain safety, but is it worth compromising people’s privacy by monitoring their every activity?

Dec 2, 2018

In 2016, former FBI Director, James Comey, was asked if he covers his webcam. “Heck yeah, heck yeah,” he responded. “I hope people lock their cars… lock your doors at night. I have an alarm system, if you have an alarm system you should use it, I use mine.”
Digital camera technology has spread around the globe, and you will be hard pressed to find a place these days that is not being recorded – even restrooms are not exempt. These cameras have been the cause of much controversy and disagreement. While such data may be necessary in the prosecution of crime, it is vulnerable and can be taken advantage of by both the owner of the recording device, hackers, governments and your local police department.
Local police departments depend heavily on CCTV digital data for crime investigation, at least in the U.S. and the U.K. Recently, there has been success with a registration program operated by a police department in Oregon in the U.S. that asks CCTV and digital camera users for permission to access the data. Those who signed up for the program made it possible for police officers to apprehend a criminal during a break-in in a house owned by one of the subscribers. This technology has also helped combat organized crime in the U.K. Some have argued that the network of digital eyes is the main reason for the sharp decrease in criminal rates not just in London but across the U.K.
Digital cameras have also become useful for national security agencies as they tackle terrorist threats around the globe. One example is the Novichok poisoning. The U.K. is one of the most heavily surveilled countries in the world, with the most advanced artificial intelligence and super-recognizers scanning the nearly 5 million cameras across the country in search of suspected criminals. These super-recognizers can accurately and swiftly comb through footage using superior memory skills. They were instrumental in identifying two alleged culprits of a poisoning of a former KGB agent and his daughter, hiding in the small city of Salisbury in England. It was later discovered through the suspects’ identification from visual data that they were Russian intelligence officers. The infrastructure of digital cameras across the U.K. and the government’s access to it is an example of the necessity of this technology in preventing terror and similar attacks.
This imposition of public surveillance, however, is a blatant attack on our privacy and independence. Opponents of digital technology state that the acquisition of visual data without consent results in the monitoring of innocent people, exposing them to possible danger. A recent report by the cybersecurity giant, Tenable, in the U.K. indicated a massive cyber attack on the country’s public camera infrastructure. The report states that hackers stole the data collected by the CCTV and other forms of public monitoring, both private and governmental. The data collected by the hackers could have been used for malicious purposes and exposes the technology’s vulnerability to attacks. Ironically, the very technology that has undoubtedly contributed to preventing such threats could also be a source.
Such worries are only made worse by a report revealing that IBM, a computer manufacturing software, uses New York City cameras to improve their facial recognition software. Now, the public monitoring debate has expanded from just involving the government and civilians to multinational corporations as well. The report alleges that IBM has collected data on a massive pool of people and plans to develop parameters such as age and skin color in its software. This not only troubles the privacy aficionados but also civil rights advocates. A software capable of discriminating against people of color in a country where police brutality is so prevalent is at least controversial. Internet privacy advocates are also concerned with the lack of transparency in the contract between the government and IBM, which raises the usual flags of unauthorized collection of personal data. The journalists also discovered that Microsoft was part of the observation experiment. Both companies have come out with statements defending their work and stating that it is their mission to satisfy customer interests. The question one should be asking is: who is this customer?
How can people tackle this issue of privacy invasion? Cover your web cameras, lock your doors and decrease your digital footprint as much as possible is the answer we usually get. Despite privacy concerns, recent surveys in the U.S. and India suggest that the majority of citizens approve of CCTV and other types of monitoring in classrooms, public institutions and even inside children’s bedrooms. Many people still seem to believe that the digital eye that currently focuses on you might be saving your life.
Munib Mesinovic is a contributing writer. Email him at
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