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How surveillance technology is changing our rights to privacy

Web users are frequently and unwittingly signing away their privacy rights – opening the door to mass snooping, writes JULIAN VIGO

IN May, San Francisco became the first city in the United States to ban the use of facial recognition technology to include such technology as used by government agencies, while not addressing technology which unlocks mobile devices or cameras installed by businesses or individuals.

Still, this ban is a step in the right direction and it is setting a precedent for other cities to follow as Oakland, California, and Somerville, Massachusetts are also currently under discussion about employing similar facial recognition bans.

In Britain, however, facial recognition technology has been under serious debate as was seen in a lawsuit filed by the human rights charity Liberty on behalf of the complainant, Ed Bridges, a self-described “father of two, football fan and campaigner on human rights.”

When Bridges was doing his Christmas shopping last year, he realised that facial recognition cameras had been scanning the the faces of all passers-by, without their consent, storing these individuals’ unique biometric data.

A seasoned human rights campaigner, Bridges contends that this technology was not only levelled on an entire population, but it was done without any “warning or consultation,” adding: “It’s hard to see how the police could possibly justify such a disproportionate use of such an intrusive surveillance tool like this, and we hope that the court will agree with us that unlawful use of facial recognition must end, and our rights must be respected.”

Liberty took on Bridges’ case, largely on the basis that there is a black hole in the law concerning electronic recording of data in public areas, stating: “There is no legal framework governing the use of this technology which violates the privacy of everyone within range of the cameras and evidence has shown that it discriminates against women and BAME people.”

Bridges started a crowdfunder to raise funds for his case and he argues that the use of technology in this way breaches data protection and equality laws.

The hearing took place over three days in Cardiff’s Civil Justice and Family Centre in May and is currently under consideration.

According to Liberty’s press office, the judges asked many questions for the entirety of the three days whereby the limits of the governmental power were scrutinised severely.

Liberty’s press office told me: “This goes way beyond traditional CCTV as these cameras take a scan of your facial features. It is the equivalent of the police taking your DNA without your permission.”

The potential for mass surveillance is not only frightening, but the broader repercussions would mean that personal data is is kept on file indefinitely.

In short, such practices, according to Liberty, where personal biometric data is “scanned and stored as we go about our lives is a gross violation of privacy.”

But this case is only the tip of the iceberg in data privacy currently taking over the tech sphere. For instance, as the competition to access more consumer data is growing increasingly fierce, multinational corporations eager for larger markets still have the responsibility to uphold privacy laws such as the EU’s GDPR.

Today it is a constant challenge in the face of online user agreements where individuals frequently and unwittingly sign away their privacy rights, especially where those clicking agreements are under 18 years of age.

One recent example is how vaping technology has cashed in on the legal loopholes to privacy as vaping’s rapid increase among adolescents from Juul to dab vape pens has resulted in their being targeted by online advertisements.

Nowadays, teenagers need only to click on a vaping site, tick that they are over 18, and not only have they have surrendered their right to privacy, but they most likely don’t understand the implications of what they are signing away.

Similarly, youth culture is targeted by the online gaming sector which plays with private data and now makes no verification of either legal age or consent.

Another area of potential privacy leaks are where online financial information is potentially put at risk when private companies do not abide by EU data law.

Similarly, online websites aimed at children, airlines and even transcription services are at the crosshairs of data protection violations as private information has been subject to data breaches which resulted in British Airways having to pay a $230 million fine last year.

While biometric recording devices within public spaces and online data collection sites are growing in number, the bigger picture is that our privacy is constantly up for debate and most people are quite unaware of the encroachment.

The more we allow technology to take over our rights to anonymity and privacy in an online sphere, the more we come to see how most people have absolutely no idea what they are signing away.

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