Camera surveillance

A network of CCTV cameras that surveils all public spaces in a city is creepy to most people, even though in practice the video quality and technical ability to make use of the videos are still rudimentary. The prospect of high resolution video coupled with facial recognition software combining into a surveillance network that tracks everyone everywhere except in private homes is way past of what most people would accept as proportional to crimefighting demands. 

The installation of automated license plate scanners on police cars is similarly creepy, even though the policemen in the car can in theory read the license plates with their own eyes already.

As a rule of thumb, the less opportunities and chances criminals have to escape the police or to escape a general surveillance, the less opportunities and chances political dissenters have to do so once political dissent was turned into a crime.

The rate of return for crimefighting is dropping badly with ever greater surveillance since few if any arrests will be added by additional surveillance. Meanwhile, adding ever more surveillance may reach a point where a collapse of democracy and liberty - even if only for a minority - may be perpetual since the government would only need a tiny popular support to recruit enough enforcers of its rule based on highly automated surveillance that no-one can escape any more.

Initiatives for more surveillance powers, hardware and personnel tended to originate in the respective bureaucracies that correctly expected a growth in personnel, powers, budget from success with such initiatives.

This may change radically in the future, when a conjunction of consumer technologies may provide the basics for a surveillance state that could be switched on in a day.

Here's an example:

Electric cars with autonomous driving combine the cameras (for awareness of the environment as needed for autonomous driving), the computing power and the power supply (batteries) required to act as semi-stationary surveillance camera systems. Communication over mobile phone networks for software updates, emergency calls et cetera is about to be implemented in almost all cars soon, thus such semi-stationary surveillance camera systems could -whenever parked in the open- report not only indexed license plates, but also indexed faces (facial recognition) - on top of reporting the movement profile, location and identity of the users.

The brave new world of electromobility and self-driving cars could provide an authoritarian government with the ability to turn millions of cars into surveillance devices by an overnight software update. They would only need to add a ban on covering up faces (easily enforced by detecting covered-up faces through the surveillance network) and the surveillance would be complete on and close to roads and streets.

This is not meant as a conspiracy theory; I do not assert that this is or will be done, or that any such plans exist in free countries. It's rather a piece of technological impact assessment. 

The scenario above will likely be feasible before a public debate about it and about possible precautions against it would be begun, much less completed.

The defence of freedom and liberty at home is not only a perpetual pushing back against bureaucratic excesses and a whack-a-mole against dangerous idiots; nowadays it also needs to include technological impact assessment and legal-technical precautions.



  1. Camera surveillance is only the tip of the iceberg of mass surveillance in an Orwellian world. In theory, ‘external surveillance’ is the observation and analysis of anything that is visible from the outside world with the naked eye (physical appearance of a person, where it goes, and what a person says and publishes in public…). It is accessing ‘public information’ as it is easily accessible. It might require a breach of freedom and liberties to access that information. It is even more so in sensitive/restricted areas (bank safe deposit box, research facilities, military bases…), where that breach of freedom and liberties is usually accepted by the signing of a contract.

    ‘Internal surveillance’ is the observation and analysis of anything that is not visible to the outside world with the naked eye using ‘external surveillance’ (e.g. information on private iphones, computers, social networks, facebook, twitter, ebay, amazon accounts, credit cards, what a person says and publish in private… ). It is accessing ‘private and confidential information’, often referred as ‘digital and electronic surveillance’. It might (often) require a breach of freedom and liberties to access some of that information. It is considered the most intrusive and dangerous breach of freedom and liberties as it is easily accessible by governments.

    ‘Cognitive surveillance’ is the observation and analysis of anything that is visible or not to the outside world through both ‘external surveillance’ (public) and ‘internal surveillance’ (private/confidential) and that is related to cognition (what someone thinks, believes, knowledge, judgement, reasoning, political views…). It is accessing ‘cognitive information’ that can only be obtained through active direct investigation (by means of direct casual discussion, asking a question, detention…). It might require a breach of freedom and liberties to access some of that information (detention, digital and electronic surveillance…).

    As you correctly pointed out, political dissenters would be the most affected when dissent becomes a crime. But dissenters usually escape the mass surveillance of a ‘hostile government’ by finding refuge in the mass surveillance of ‘friendly governments’. Birds of a feather flock together.

  2. Surveillance is espionage. It also targets foreign citizens and governments.
    For example, the NSA tapped German Chancellery for decades. By definition, a government spying on other organization/citizen means that the government views the other organization/citizen as a potential or actual competitor/enemy; and it wishes to gain some political advantage over the competitor/enemy. But if, let’s say, State A is aware of the surveillance by State B, then it can use a wide array of counter surveillance measures to deceive State B. Moreover, State A and B might be in competition for information in a State C, which furthermore complicate the game. Espionage abroad is easier in peace time as it gives a wider array of resources. In war time, the game is always trickier.
    Digital surveillance is high tech and very fashionable but it seems that there is a resurgence of the old Cold War era methods.

  3. Facial recognition sounds scary in theory, but I work with ocr on a daily basis.
    Under lab conditions, it works great, ish, the real world, I'm yet to see a computer reliably read a paragraph without errors.
    A face, ha.