On Pre-Crimes and Panopticons

by Chris Borgen

Going forward I need to remember that if I’m ever looking for a quick topic about which to blog, I just need to take a look at the latest developments from the UK on surveillance. First there was using ubiquitous surveillance to make art.  Now there’s surveillance imitating art… specifically The Minority Report, a short story by Philip K. Dick (and subsequently a film).  As the Daily Mail explains:

CCTV [closed-circuit TV] cameras which can ‘predict’ if a crime is about to take place are being introduced on Britain’s streets.

The cameras can alert operators to suspicious behaviour, such as loitering and unusually slow walking. Anyone spotted could then have to explain their behaviour to a police officer.

The move has been compared to the Tom Cruise science-fiction film Minority Report, in which people are arrested before they commit planned offences.

(A hat tip to Futurismic for spotting this article.)

Further on, the article states:

Computers are programmed to analyse the movements of people or vehicles in the camera frame. If someone is seen lurking in a particular area, the computer will send out an alarm to a CCTV operator.

The operator will then check the image and – if concerned – ring the police. The aim is to stop crimes before they are committed. If a vehicle is moving too fast or slow – indicating joyriding or kerb-crawling, for example – a similar alert could be given.

Councillor Jason Fazackarley of Portsmouth Council said: ‘It’s the 21st century equivalent of a nightwatchman, but unlike a night-watchman it never blinks, it never takes a break and it never gets bored.’

Of course this is supposed to be reassuring and, as one commentor put it, she would not mind such a system if she was surrounded by a hostile street gang. She assumed that if she was out with a bunch of her female friends, she would not be similarly targeted. The underlying issue, of course, is which activities or groups look suspicious.

The main question, though, is whether or not this is inching toward a panopticon society. In keeping with my sense that science fiction writers have some of the most interesting things to say about technology, society, and surveillance, see this 2002 piece by novelist/essayist Bruce Sterling about the technologies that will further expand surveillance and societal implications.

After reviewing a list of these technologies, Sterling wrote:

The pressure to adopt these technologies springs from our existing political discourse as we struggle to confront ill-defined threats. We live in a dangerous world: widespread use of high technology means that individuals can take actions that are disruptive out of all proportion to their numbers. Human nature being what it is, we want to be safe: the promise of a high-tech surveillance “fix” that will identify terrorists or malefactors before they hurt us is a great lure.

But acts of mass terror exist at one end of a scale that begins with the parking ticket, the taping of a CD for personal use in a Walkman, a possibly-defamatory statement about a colleague sent in private email to a friend, a mistakenly ommitted cash receipt when compiling the annual tax return … the list is endless, and to a police authority with absolute knowledge and a robotic compulsion to Enforce The Law, we would all, ultimately, be found guilty of something.

This brings up a first major point: legislators do not pass laws in the expectation that everybody who violates them will automatically be caught and punished. Rather, they often pass new laws in order to send a message — to their voters (that they’re doing something about their concerns) and to the criminals (that if caught they will be dealt with harshly). There is a well-known presumption that criminals are acting rationally (in the economic sense) and their behaviour is influenced by the perceived reward for a successful crime, and both the risk and severity of punishment. This theory is implicitly taken into account by legislators when they draft legislation, because in our current state of affairs most crimes go undetected and unreported. A panopticon singularity would completely invalidate these assumptions.

Sterling’s further point is that, especially given the number of dated and underenforced laws on the books, “we are all criminals.”  And, as surveillance increases, the chances of us getting caught increases.  For him, then, thinking about surveillance doesn’t stop with the neato technical stuff of smart cameras and whatnot, but rather leads one to have to consider carefully what activities we want to regulate and why. In the United States, this is an issue that will require more serious attention and thought in the years to come.

http://opiniojuris.org/2008/12/01/on-pre-crimes-and-panopticons/

Comments are closed.