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Surveillance: Have We 'Big Brother-ed' Ourselves?

When does the use of surveillance technology by governing bodies and law enforcement agencies cross the line and become an invasion of privacy?

Cities around the world are employing technology like facial recognition and GPS tracking in an effort to safeguard their citizens, not to mention CCTV cameras by the dozen, hundreds, even thousands, to assist in the prevention of crime.

The town of Yizhuang, China, (pop. 12,000) covers 18 sq km (7 sq mi). Within its boundary are more than 2,200 high definition security cameras, 277 vehicle recognition cameras, and 267 facial recognition cameras. It also has six patrol vehicles with mobile cameras, and officers equipped with video capture equipment, sending live video to a main control centre that operates around the clock.

(On a far broader scale, China has over 170 million CCTV cameras spread across the nation, all with facial recognition algorithms able to track down a citizen in seven minutes. An estimated 400 million new cameras will be installed by 2021. BBC News video)

Half a world away, the extent of surveillance in The Big Apple is unknown. That said, there are around 2,000 cameras scanning the streets, sidewalks, rooftops, parks, bridges and tunnels, 7,000 in public housing and 4,000 in the subway. The NYPD can also tap into 4,000 private security cameras scattered throughout the five boroughs. Many of these cameras are equipped with infrared sensors that help capture high resolution images even in very low light.

London is one of the most heavily surveilled cities in the world and its 'ring of steel' comprises more than 620,000 CCTV cameras (one for every 14 people). Of these, 15,000+ cameras are in the London Underground. According to CCTV.co.uk, "It is thought that an average person commuting to work and back, with a one hour lunch break walking around London, may be captured on as many as 300 CCTV cameras during their standard working day."

Darwin, Australia's most northern city, has installed poles outfitted with speakers, WiFi, and cameras (The City of Darwin states: "The CCTV system does not include facial recognition"). These 'monitoring stations' keep track of people's movements, as well as respond to triggers, such as when a 'virtual fence' is breached. An alert is sent informing authorities that e.g. "There’s a person in (an area) around which you've put a virtual fence ... look at camera five."

The Washington County Sheriff's Office presides over Hillsboro, Oregon, and lays claim to be the first US law enforcement agency to use Rekognition, the AI-powered facial recognition tool from Amazon. This is the first real world use of Rekognition and the concern is that wrongful arrests happen because one person will resemble another ... with a criminal record. More than 300,000 Washington County jail mugshots have been uploaded into Rekognition. These can be cross-referenced with images from security cameras, social media accounts, or even a deputy's mobile device. All without a warrant.

We are concerned for our wellbeing and surveillance provides a layer of security. But at what cost? We fear the world of Big Brother depicted in George Orwell's 1984, yet, with time, we are becoming immune to 'cameras on every street corner'. Have we unwittingly 'Big Brother-ed' ourselves?

Sources: Webroot, Next City and CCTV.co.uk

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