Is it surveillance we most have to fear?

Mike Nellis
Monday, 29 June 2020

Mass surveillance has been everybody’s idea of dystopia for a long time, at least since Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four.

When it finally overpowers us, it will not be by CCTV alone, but by ambient and interactive sensors scraping our data, and algorithms ceaselessly scanning for anomalies, with facial recognition tech maybe bridging the two. Will the pandemic bring this Orwellian moment closer?

It’s easy to think so. China was making mass surveillance come true anyway: all it needed to do after lockdown was adapt its existing smartphone surveillance system to track and trace people with Covid 19, and using a Q-code to let people know where they could and couldn’t go. East Asian countries with previous experience of SARS epidemics - Singapore and South Korea - got track and trace up and running quickly. So efficient. Look what’s possible.

When temporary measures become permanent

In the west, especially in the US, there’s certainly been a lot of concern that new medical surveillance systems, rolled out during the pandemic to track and trace carriers of the virus, will stay in place even after the worst is over and the risks of infection are less. The virus won’t be going away any time soon; government will say it needs to keep watching. Apple and Google - household names, largely loved -quickly got in on the act. And, generally, we aren’t minding the prospect of permanent track and trace because, hey, it happens anyway, and during lockdown we shifted our lives online and simply got more used to 'invasive technification', without ever thinking it was invasive.

Naomi Klein is telling us, urgently: 

...the future is being sold to us on the dubious promise that these technologies are the only way to pandemic-proof out lives.

Tech companies are certainly having a profitable pandemic because their products and systems have alleviated the pains of lockdown and no-touch social distancing. Connectivity has kept key aspects of business, education and public service going, enabling millions of office workers to work from home, and families to stay in contact, accelerating existing tech trends and opening up new perspectives on what normal might look like. So, yes, there will be more surveillance. It’s obvious, isn’t it?

Defunding the police meets the American Right

The spectre of - if not mass, then certainly more - surveillance is already haunting the US 'defund the police' movement. Fewer cops equals more cameras, more drones, more data, more algorithms. There’s quite a bit around already. Gary Marx (1988) pointed to that general dynamic a while ago. The defunders will have to be very canny. It’s a bold, progressive, and necessary call, but there’s a lot in the 'defund the police' movement for the American Right - who like dismantling Big Government - to welcome and co-opt. It probably wouldn’t just be cheaper surveillance tech that replaces state police forces, the human face of private armed militias will figure too.

But this might not even happen. Powerful police interests and allies will use the threat of defunding by knee-taking Democrats to mobilise support for Trump. It’s not a foregone conclusion he will lose. When George Orwell invited his mid-20th century readers, through his character O’Brien, to imagine future fascism, it wasn’t Big Brother’s cameras and telescreens he mostly asked them to fear. It was 'a jackboot stamping on a human face, forever'. Not too far from a knee on a neck. Pretty much the old fascism, and it’s alive and well.

Electronic monitoring: A gap in the market

There’s much to fear from new surveillance technologies, and much to fight, but it’s not everything we are up against. Naomi Klein, convinced that in a world where we have all become biohazards to each other and where as many social arrangements as possible will need to become no-touch and contactless, considered that in such a surveillance-rich milieu even the electronic monitoring (EM) of offenders might finally expand in the US. In the long run it might. Smartphone EM of lower risk offenders on correctional caseloads, long seen as an untapped market by EM entrepreneurs, will be at the forefront of this, abetted by National Institute of Justice promotion of artificial intelligence (AI) in correctional management tool.

But the fiasco of US Attorney General William Barr’s 'early release on EM home confinement' strategy to help manage the pandemic in prisons seems to show how easily obstacles are put in the way of GPS EM’s expansion. His first Directive on 26 March 2020 seemed to permit the rapid nationwide release of tens of thousands of low risk prisoners but, as ProPublica revealed, was thwarted by a recalibration of risk by the Bureau of Prisons which lead to a mere 3050 being released by 21 May.

His second Directive on 3 April 2020 seemingly undermined his first, shifting the early release focus to the three penitentiaries most Covid-affected, and then stating that, 'massively overburdened police forces' didn’t need 'the indiscriminate release of thousands of prisoners onto the streets. It’s hard not to think that between the first and second Directives police interests had objected to early release on EM.

Tech does not expand itself

There isn’t an overriding surveillance tech imperative, even now, here or in the US. England’s pitch for a track and trace app wasn’t even Isle of Wight-beating, let alone world-beating. Competence, commitment and values matter equally, everywhere. Tech does not expand itself.

Will facial recognition tech fare better than EM? It’s not an insignificant moment in commerce-government relations that IBM, Microsoft and Apple have stopped selling this product to police forces, to compel official regulation of it, but they could resume doing so, and in the meantime there are other - ostensibly less good - competitors to buy from. Harrisburg University of Science and Technology has just announced facial analysis software which allegedly predicts criminality with 80 per cent accuracy and no racial bias. Implausible and pernicious as this sounds, certain as it is that some US police forces will want it, it is by no means clear that, while fearful tech like this could augment, it will never supplant the threat and spectacle of militarised violence in American policing.

Mike Nellis is Emeritus Professor of Criminal and Community Justice in the Law School, University of Strathclyde.