IMAGE: Staffordgreen0 — Pixabay

Isn’t it about time we had a debate about what living under permanent surveillance really means?

Felipe Araujo, a freelance journalist, contacted me to discuss some of my recent work on the growth of the surveillance society. He has just published a highly recommendable piece on Medium called Inside the city that spies on you.

Felipe particularly wanted my views on what is going on in China, where wholesale monitoring of the population is steadily being implemented. Critics of the way some journalists in the West have reported on China’s move toward being a surveillance society, who have accused of bias, have been very quiet for a long time: it turns out the Cassandras were right, and might even have underplayed the extent to which the authorities in China monitor just about every aspect of people’s lives: cameras are located not just in all public areas, but are also used by the police and are linked to facial recognition algorithms and use the information they capture to maintain social rating systems that can blacklist people for “frivolous” spending, as well as restricting their right to travel if they are considered critics of the regime.

I was keen to point out to Felipe that while we may have few expectations from an authoritarian society like China, we need to keep our guard up to protect our rights in the democracies of the West where the rules are much less clear. In the case of the United Kingdom, which, as the article describes, seems to be turning into an Orwellian dystopia, there are still norms about how the information generated by surveillance systems is used. In other western democracies, these norms do not exist or are not publicized and voters have little or no say over how information about their movements is used.

If we live in democracies, then our governments have to play by the rules of democracy. If technology allows the authorities to monitor what we do, we must create legal frameworks that allow for the surveillance of wrongdoers, whether vandals or terrorists, while at the same time preserving the right to privacy of the vast majority of us who obey the law. The old adage of “I have nothing to fear because I have nothing to hide” offers no guarantees, and doesn’t meet the standards required of a true democracy.

If technology means we are all going to end up living under permanent surveillance, then as democratic societies, we are going to have to discuss and legislate accordingly. The authorities in China do not need to ask permission because they can do what they like, but the last time I checked, I didn’t live in China.

(En español, aquí)