Here's Looking At You (Again)

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'Friends don’t spy,' wrote Stephen King. 'True friendship is about privacy, too.'

In future, it seems, British companies and local authorities will need to work much harder at making friends.

The supermarket giant Tesco announced on the weekend that it will soon use CCTV cameras, with face detection software, to track demographics among its customers.

In the beginning, the cameras will be placed at each of its petrol station checkouts. They will then, presumably, be rolled out across its 3,000 stores in the UK alone.

The scheme involves software called OptimEyes, developed by Amscreen, another British company which says its tools will help bring the Tesco into 'a new age of customer insight, measurability, campaign management and optimisation.'

The OptimEyes website is quick to stress that 'face detection' does not mean 'face recognition'. The technology, it adds, is not used to store personal information about customers or to identify them in any way. It is used only to allow a company to track who is using its services at any given time, in any given place.

Amscreen's ultimate goal is to provide its clients with demographic data.

This data is the new, global currency which allows companies to sharpen their pitch of products to customers, both at the point of sale and in their wider marketing campaigns.

Geofencing is another manifestation of the same phenomenon. It involves companies pitching products to us based on our present location at any given time of day.

It's all based upon algorithms that map our buying habits, and smartphones that signal our whereabouts.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with companies developing more effective ways to market products. Advertising is a core component of free market capitalism.

What's more, the cameras used by Tesco will look nothing like the bulky CCTV units we're used to seeing in public areas.

These cameras are so small that they fit neatly into the frames that surround plasma screens - the same screens that carry glossy advertising images.

The basic technology is the same, though - with one added extra. It provides Tesco with the ability to screen faces, ascertaining things like gender, age demographic and even customer emotions, which help to shape buying habits.

So, it is CCTV with added commercial advantages - advantages that are stacked firmly in favour of the corporate entity.

As a Social Futurist, I predicted the possible use of miniature camera technology in this way some years ago, as did others in the field.

Yet doing something just because it can be done, without considering longer term ramifications or adding safeguards, is a recipe for mayhem.

Some might argue that the demographic information gathered by the OptimEyes system is much the same as the data already collected using existing customer surveys.

However, when it comes to using CCTV as a de facto marketing tool, there are two important differences. Firstly, the customer is not given the option of refusing to provide information, or to opt out of the 'survey' or conversation.

Short of wearing a bag over one's head, there's not much one can do to avoid a well-placed CCTV camera near a checkout counter.

Second, this practice represents yet another example of a technology that is used to 'watch' the public in ways that were neither envisaged or sanctioned when the technology was introduced. 

Without being paranoid about the prospect of Big Brother getting in on the act, this is a concern in the age of Big Data.

For the first time in history, governments and large corporations have access to the type of computing power needed to analyse the billions of bytes of information recorded using mobile devices, including CCTV cameras.

Companies already buy into Big Data services to track consumer trends, but the possibility of the same technology being used to track behaviour in a more sinister way are real.

Originally, CCTV was introduced to help reduce crime - particularly violent crime.

The school is still out on whether or not it does in fact reduce crime and there is even more doubt as to whether it prevents crime.

One report I saw suggested that only around three percent of violent crimes are solved using CCTV. This may be a low estimate, but the fact remains that CCTV is not the great boon to crime-fighting that was first promised us in the 1980s.

EU figures from 2009 showed that despite having more CCTV cameras per capita than any other European nation, the UK also had the highest rate of violent crime.

Some anti-CCTV campaigners argue that the cost of placing and maintaining cameras could be better invested in increasing the visibility of police officers in problem areas.

Campaigners also cite the way CCTV was presented in the 1980s as a means of tracking stolen cars. Very quickly thereafter, they say, it became a means of watching cars that were 'of interest' to the police.

More recently, CCTV has been used by law enforcement as an automatic number plate recognition system, taking up to 14 million photos of vehicles and their owners every day.

In London, cameras originally put up to track congestion charge traffic have reportedly been accessed by police for number plate recognition. This has been done without the benefit of any supporting legislation and without any clearly defined safeguards or lines of accountability.

Today CCTV seems to have spread its wings even further, so that it is becoming a catch-all option for dealing with even minor infringements.

This was illustrated by another story covered in British newspapers over the weekend.

Some local councils are planning to use CCTV cameras to record the number plates of parents who park illegally while making school runs.

I suspect that almost anyone who has driven near city schools during drop-off or pick-up times will admit that there is something of a problem here.

Some parents seem to think that the entire world must come to a standstill while they attend to their children.

Yet using CCTV cameras to solve the problem, by tracking relatively minor parking infringements, will only serve to further erode public trust in local councils. It will also lead to questions about unintended consequences.

If this practice becomes widespread, what's to stop councils using CCTV to track other infringements, not only of law but of basic etiquette? Why would they not, for example, use the same tools to identify and penalise people who litter the streets?

Would it be worth allowing ever greater intrusions into our personal space simply to net a few litterers?

Likewise on the corporate front, it is a relatively short jump in pure technological terms from a tool that is used for 'face detection' to one that is designed for 'facial recognition'.

What's to stop companies in future from taking that step?

Even for the more scrupulous corporate entities, there is the danger of future material being stored and then stolen and misappropriated.

If highly developed national governments have proven unable to guarantee the security of their databanks, why should companies be trusted with data that could be used by others in unintended or as yet unforeseen ways?

That's especially true when we consider how quickly technology is moving ahead.

Basic technologies already exist that, if fully utilised, allow law enforcement authorities not only to track crimes but to automatically mete out punishment, without the involvement of a single human being anywhere in the process.

Some countries are experimenting with these tools in dealing with traffic offences.

This may sound like sci-fi to some, but wifi was sci-fi not that long ago.

The biggest problem with using potentially intrusive technologies in ways that were not first mandated - or at least expected - by the public, is that it erodes trust.

The UK has around 61,000 CCTV cameras, more than any other European country per head of population. Some reports have the total at around one camera for every 1000 people.

Intriguingly, a 2009 study conducted by the BBC showed that some of our tiniest regions have more cameras than much larger cities elsewhere.

For example, two of the smallest local authorities in the UK - the Shetland Islands Council and Corby Borough Council - have more CCTV cameras than the entire San Francisco Police Department.

According to the same study, the City of London has 619 cameras, but a population of only 9,000. That's 68 cameras for every 1,000 people. The London borough of Wandsworth has more cameras than the police departments of Boston [USA], Johannesburg and Dublin City Council combined.

During the recession, some local councils were reportedly forced to turn off some of their cameras. These units are not cheap to maintain - and they require an army of paid officials to view and process their 24/7 data-feeds.

Whether operational or not, however, the units are left in situ, in plain sight. So even when they're not working, there is no appreciable gain in terms of public perception.

And it is public perception which ought to be the biggest concern for governments and companies looking to extend the use of CCTV technology.

Trust is at the very heart of democratic government and it is the bottom-line currency in all free markets.

Governments can operate only because their citizens entrust certain powers into their hands. Companies can trade only because they've engaged the trust of their clients and customers.

If governments, including the local variety, won't trust their people, how long will it be before people return the favour and stop trusting their public representatives?

In the end, a lack of trust breeds social insecurity and a desire to fight the system rather than co-operate with it.

In the mid 1990s, sociologists developed what they called the 'broken windows theory'. Its basic premise is that when streetscapes and public buildings are left rundown, their users or tenants are more prone to commit acts of vandalism. Small crimes often then lead to larger crimes.

In a similar way, I think, the preponderance of security cameras in our streets leads people to ask, consciously or unconsciously, 'If the authorities don't trust us, why should we trust or engage with the authorities?'

If companies like Tesco are intent on adding to the public's sense of being observed, might they not also find that customer trust is compromised?

Knowing that we are surrounded by instruments of intrusion breeds and perpetuates a culture of suspicion all round.

Using new and emerging technologies in an ever more connected way does not necessarily mean that we must surrender all rights to privacy. Ceding privacy is a moral choice, not a technological necessity.

Technology is not destiny - human choice will decide whether technologies define us or serve us.

With any use of technology by officials - or companies - what we barely tolerate today may become the norm tomorrow, unless we are vigilant and hold them to account.



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