Protests by civil liberties groups at police plans to roll out facial recognition technology seem odd. Who is it that has anything to fear from being recognised?
It’s not as though the police are going to be interested in 99.9% of the faces pictured, or even 99.99%. Who is going where, when and why they are going, is hardly the stuff to ring alarm bells. There might be very rare occasions when, if one was in the police, one might be tempted to use a picture of someone in a particular location at a particular time to apply pressure to someone reluctant for such details to be exposed; otherwise the dull details of people’s private lives must make for exceedingly boring times in the police.
If the police proposals seem like the work of “Big Brother,” then George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four should reassure those who fear private details of their lives might have been revealed. Orwell anticipated a time when the majority of people would believe that being allowed to have sex with whomsoever they wished and having access to pornography would mean that they had freedom: Big Brother is not interested in curtailing such freedom.
With extraordinary prescience, Orwell wrote of the proles in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, films, football, beer, and above all, gambling, filled up the horizon of minds.” Big Brother was not worried how promiscuous they might be, and, through the activity of the Ministry of Truth’s Pornosec, provided pornography which many young men bought, believing themselves to be engaged in illicit behaviour.
The police are hardly more interested in the activity of the overwhelming majority of people than Big Brother was interested in the activity of the proles. Surveillance is, overwhelmingly, no more a curtailment of freedom than a lifeguard on a beach is a curtailment of the freedom of sunbathers. Provided we are no more dangerous than the proles, no-one will disturb us.
Following the stories of the proposals to introduce the technology, the significant question to be asked is not whether surveillance takes place, but what constitutes a reason to use the technology and who makes that judgement. Shrill suggestion that there will be policemen checking every image and noting every move will do nothing to protect our freedom (Orwell would probably have suggested that such stories assist the development of Big Brother as they divert attention down sensationalist channels).
If the technology is there, the debate should be on how rather than whether it is used.