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  • Thierry Spanjaard

Do we want security or liberty?

"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety," once said Benjamin Franklin.

The debate between security and liberty has never been so current. Biometrics allow always more control on individuals. Governments, and the society at large, are in demand of security, but no one is ready to abandon one's own liberty, especially one's own privacy.

Street camera monitoring combined with Artificial Intelligence provides the best tool for a permanent analysis of a population. Algorithmic video surveillance consists in the automation of the analysis of street video images thanks to a software that produces notifications when it detects an event that it has been trained to recognize. Typically, this software isolates meaningful information from static or moving images, in order to trigger alarms when so-called suspect behaviors are detected.

In March 2023, France has legalized the use of intelligent video surveillance for major events including the 2024 Paris Olympics (July 26 to August 11, 2024) and Paralympics (August 28 to September 8, 2024), despite warnings against this technology considered as a breach of privacy that potentially violates civil liberties. The original plan is to end up the use of these technologies on March 31, 2025, however, Amélie Oudéa-Castéra, French Minister of Sports, already declared the experiment could be extended if it proved satisfactory.

La Quadrature du Net, a French Civil Liberties association says "such automated CCTV cameras lead to massive police surveillance of public space. It analyses behavior to detect the ones supposed to be considered as not “normal”. It implements algorithms that can track individuals on the streets if the police consider them “suspects.” In a near future, it will mean real time identification through facial recognition and massive usage of video-based fines. It also means millions of euros from public funding for dangerous technologies deployed without real debate."

Now, investigation media Disclose, announced that in 2015, the French police acquired a video image analysis software from Israeli company BriefCam, a system which uses artificial intelligence to analyze images captured by cameras or drones to detect deemed “abnormal” situations. The Ministry of Interior has been using this algorithmic video surveillance software, without making this use public. Especially, this application was not declared to the French Privacy regulator CNIL (Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertés - National Commission on Informatics and Liberty). The said software has already been used in several departments: Seine-et-Marne, Rhône, Nord, Alpes-Maritimes, and Haute-Garonne. This massive installation was carried out outside the legal framework provided by a European directive and the French Data Protection Act, says Disclose. In addition, more than a hundred cities, including Nice, Roanne, Aulnay-sous-Bois, Perpignan, or Roubaix have been actively using BriefCam technologies. Consequently, the CNIL, the French data regulator, announced it will control the Ministry of Interior, to establish the legality of the use of BriefCam for these applications.

France is not alone in its use of massive on-street automated facial recognition. Countries such as China, Iran, Russia, Israel, the United States, Brazil, Taiwan, and Singapore have been actively implementing such technologies. For instance, in Iran, according to Wired, the government morality police is using facial recognition to identify in the public space women who are not respecting the mandatory hijab regulation. Images gathered from street facial recognition are used in relation with the national identity database, built in 2015, which includes biometric data like face scans and is used to issue national ID cards. Multiple arms of the Iranian government have access to face recognition technology. Iranian traffic officials started using it in 2020 to issue fines and send women warnings by SMS text about wearing a hijab when inside a vehicle, adds Wired. Some face recognition in use in Iran today comes from Chinese camera and artificial intelligence company Tiandy.

China's facial recognition system logs nearly every single citizen in the country, with a vast network of cameras across the country, according to CNET. The technology was first used to profile Uyghur individuals in the context of the Chinese government global repression against this minority.

In the UK, London´s Metropolitan Police, the UK´s biggest force, is piloting contentious facial recognition technology to catch prolific shoplifters, as stores suffer increased thefts and violence by criminal gangs, addicts, and others. Thanks to a campaign spearheaded by the privacy advocate Big Brother Watch, dozens of Members of Parliament and Peers have joined a campaign for an “immediate stop” to the use of live facial recognition surveillance by police and private companies, says The Guardian. The statement comes after the policing minister, Chris Philp, announced government plans to make UK passport photos searchable by police. As a response, the Policing Minister requires the Police to double the number of searches they make using retrospective facial recognition technology to track down known offenders by May 2024, says, the official UK government website.

Democracies are now emulating technologies used by dictatorships and leaning onto the security side of the security versus liberty dilemma. Shall we end up deprived from both security and liberty as Benjamin Franklin anticipated?

Photo credits: Bing image creator - Matthew Henry on Unsplash - Tobias Tullius on Unsplash - Unsplash+

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