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It’s a death of a thousand cuts on route to a surveillance state

There’s something inherently creepy about the growing number of security cameras being imposed on our spaces, public and private.

They make sense in locations as diverse as banks and convenience stores for security reasons, but have proliferated in a range of private businesses. That’s troubling, but the use of such cameras in public places is much more disconcerting.

In response to the provincial government’s announcement of $2 million in funding to expand the coverage of closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems, the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario this week warned of the potential threats to our privacy.

“CCTV camera systems may be effective in helping deter or detect crime, and potentially provide evidence for use in criminal investigations. However, video surveillance footage can, and often does, capture the personal information of law-abiding citizens going about their everyday lives and can create a chilling effect on freedoms and liberties when taken too far,” says Patricia Kosseim

“I strongly encourage any police service or municipality considering the implementation or enhancement of CCTV camera systems to consult with my office to ensure appropriate policies, procedures, and training are in place to safeguard the personal information they collect.”

She notes that Ontario’s privacy laws do not require police services or municipalities to ask their citizens for permission to install or use coverage of CCTV camera systems. They simply have to comply with existing privacy laws, which are not overly robust when it comes to protecting citizens.

As with discussions about the likes of red-light cameras and photo radar, there will be enablers who insist more public cameras aren’t an issue if you’re simply minding your own business. Such arguments are just another variation of the nothing-to-hide excuse for authoritarian surveillance.

As with each effort to strip away privacy rights, there are those who will argue they’re fine with each new measure because they’ve got nothing to hide. Only those with something to hide – only criminals, for those of this misguided mindset – would argue against more surveillance. That kind or reasoning alone is enough to dismiss the “nothing to hide” argument. Of course, it’s also easily shot down by asking those who make that argument if they own curtains and blinds. If they’ve got nothing to hide, they certainly won’t mind others looking in through their windows, right? Or having their bank records made public?

Nobody, of course, wants to do that. We all value some measure of privacy. And we all have something to hide, which doesn’t make us criminals, terrorists or any kind of “threat.”

Our privacy is under attack from every direction, from surveillance cameras to increasingly draconian internet snooping. Large corporations, particularly the invasive Google, Facebook and the like, have created a business model based on violating your privacy and civil rights. They could be shut down at the stroke of a pen by government regulation, yet politicians and bureaucrats have no interest in protecting your rights. Instead, they want to make life much worse, all to their own benefit.

They care not about the unethical drive to boost the state’s ability to collect, track, store, aggregate and use information that represents a huge power imbalance. A lack of control on what happens to the growing amount of information collected poses future risks as technology evolves, while today it threatens to circumvent laws that protect our rights in traditional encounters with authorities.

Sure, there’s some lip service to protecting the public here – officials in Europe are doing a much better job, though there’s a long way to go – but if history has taught us anything it’s that new technologies are never held in check for long. Because we can do something, we will do that thing. Only the most stringent of regulations – the kind not favoured by governments increasingly bent on control – have a hope of curtailing the erosion of our rights.

We have become accustomed to financial outlets tracking our spending habits via credit and debit cards; “security” cameras are commonplace at business locations; using the Internet leaves a clear trail to those in the know. In the private sector, we still have something of a choice to avoid some of the tracing measures, though not as large as we think – nor as large as we should have if regulators were doing their jobs. But when the government begins installing what are in essence tracking devices with gleeful abandon, we have the state sanctioning this dangerous and invasive practice.

We’re suffering a social death by a thousand cuts, so we need to prevent one more, rolling each back until we’ve got a freer society. There is thus far no talk of such privacy and civil rights concerns, of course.

Already far from passive, widespread video surveillance becomes more threatening by the day given increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence programs and facial recognition software.

That last sentence bears repeating: None of this data should ever have been collected. Thus far, however, governments have done almost nothing to protect the public from predatory practices, in part because they, too, want access to your data.

It wasn’t always so. Once upon a time, a phone was something bolted to the wall in your home and a computer was something as big as a house. Today, the two have converged and condensed to fit into our pockets, which is convenient, as we take our smart phones with us everywhere.

Other devices that blend communications and computing power, the likes of notebook computers to tablets, are also close at hand – from social media updates to the constant digital check-ins, we’re pretty much addicted to our devices.

Quite aside from the careless posting of information online and the perils of information culled by the social media sites – whose business is abusing your data and selling it to third parties such as advertisers – and, more nefariously, various government agencies, domestic and foreign, there’s the issue of just how much of our (theoretically) private lives is stored on our toys.

In those once-upon-a-time days, phone conversations were pretty much always private. Sure, there were wiretaps, but the technology was messier, and the laws more protective. And those massive computers could be hacked, but that was a problem for governments and large institutions, as much of our lives was still analog. Today, there’s little reason to believe in privacy, and even less reason to think you’re largely-digital life is secure.

If you’re active on social media, chances are you’re sharing too much information. Part of that is your choice, and part if it involves that fact that you’re likely ignorant – blissfully or otherwise – of what’s being done with your personal information, as informed consent is rare.

More insidiously, it’s the data you don’t explicitly share that’s been gathered, analyzed and stored for posterity, the intent being nothing good for you or society as a whole. With cameras in widespread use, that includes your every movement.

Left unchecked, government and corporate interests will create a surveillance infrastructure beyond Orwell’s worst nightmares.

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