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Dutch Ethics Expert: Why Do You Accept Mass Surveillance in Denmark?

Photo by Lianhao Qu on Unsplash

In 1996 David Brin published a thought experiment on Wired. During an evening in Hamburg I discussed this thought experiment, but I wouldn’t have thought that only a day later arriving in Copenhagen for the Data Ethics Forum, this thought experiment was the instrument of looking at an actual matter.

On Wednesday the 9th of October Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said in an interview with newspaper Berlingske that she wants the Danish Government to massively ramp up public surveillance . 300 new security cameras need to be installed in order to prevent crime. Frederiksen’s reason to use surveillance cameras in public space is exactly what Brin’s thought experiment is about. And his thought experiment let us show what the impact is on society and which ethical questions arise when using mass surveillance.

The Transparent Society

In his story, Brin imagines a near future, 20 years from 1996. He writes that we can choose to live in either one of two cities.  The two cities look, from a distant perspective, not that different. Both have similar issues, concerning urban planning, education, social challenges. There are some differences in comparison with the cities in the nineties, Brin writes. The air seems cleaner, the role of technology is more present and what strikes most: there is no street crime.

Both cities have cameras in public space, on every street corner, in every lamp post. So imagine, you have to choose in either one of the cities. If you want to make this choice, be aware of one big difference between the two.

In City One the footage of the camera’s is directly connected to police HQ. The police uses the footage in order to prevent crime. At first people notice the cameras on the street, but it only takes some time before they get used to it and forget them. They live, Brin says, in illusion of privacy. What they do might be seen by the police, but if you’re not involved in crime, you might never notice or experience the consequences of being watched.

In City Two, the camera’s also produce footage and is also send to police HQ. The difference: There are also cameras present within the police HQ. In City Two the citizens are the ones in control of the footage. Everyone has the possibility of watching the footage, on their wrist watches, their phones, their television. They can control, if the police is doing their work properly by watching them in the HQ’s. And they can control their own safety, by checking that alley they want to walk through beforehand. In this city, privacy is something people remember and talk about nostalgically. ‘That was back in the old days’. Privacy no longer exists.

Who’s in control?

The thought experiment addresses the question who’s in control in the transparent society. In City One its the police, the government, the state. Do we trust them doing this job right? Do we trust them using the cameras? A question that often comes up in my practice as a data-ethicist is: Once the data is there, what other use could it have? The function creep of the data that is collected for one purpose that one day will be inevitably be used for another reason. And that’s a slippery slope, something that happens gradually, with no clear checks and decision moments.

In City Two the people, the citizens, are in control. But how could that work out practically? Brin mentions that the citizens will have 10000 of choices to make. Is that realistic? And my question would be, is it up to the people to protect ourselves? We also defined the rights on liberties and properties, otherwise – some philosophers would argue – there would be war between everyone. Don’t we need the regulation and protection by a government?  Besides, would it even be practically possible to make decisions as a group of citizens? I guess we would be in an ongoing polarised debate on this topic, never coming to any actions at all.

In order to give control to one party or the other, either of them should be aware of the values that drive their actions. In Denmark, safety seems to be the force that drives Frederiksen to propose mass surveillance. But at what price?

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

A Third City

The transparent society is the name of Brin’s story, and he asks himself, if he at the time of writing (more than 20 years ago!) isn’t all ready living in either of these cities. He wrote the story at that very time the first British cities announce the use of camera’s in public spaces where troubles occur at night.

I remember this discussion in my hometown in the Netherlands a couple of years later. A heavy debate dominated local media on the use of camera’s in the street, where all the bars and pubs are located. Same reason as in Britain and now in Denmark was used in order to legitimize the use of camera’s: to prevent crime.

David Brin was right, and nowadays I even feel we live more and more in his dystopian story. I guess the first city, where the government is in control is the one that is similar to ours. But a huge concern to me is this: the government does not develop their own camera’s and software in order to monitor public spaces. They rely on third parties. And can we trust them with our data? So added to the question if we should trust the government in this, we should ask how we can ensure the third party is trustworthy and handles following the same values.

In Hamburg I sketched a Third City, and added it to Brins thought experiment: A city where neither government nor citizens are in control, but Big Tech. Inspired by Zuboff I imagined a city, where not only our behaviour is monitored, but also nudged in a certain direction. Where not only privacy but also liberty is gone. You could question whether, when relying on a third party, part of this city is all ready present.

Demand Privacy

I do not want to spread distrust. What I do want is that people think about the implications of these kinds of technologies. The mass surveillance that is proposed in Denmark does something to the way people live together. That is not a legal issue, but an ethical matter that should be addressed in politics. How do we want to live together?

Privacy isn’t as I always thought a value that we need in order to ensure our autonomy and democracy. Brin made me see that it’s the other way around: Privacy is a product of liberty. If we are free, we’re able to demand privacy.

So in Denmark, this is the question: is it possible to demand privacy?

Read more about Piek here