Since the beginning of the digital revolution, technological advancements have had a profound impact on society, government, business and the labour market.
Over the past decade, police forces across the globe have adopted an abundance of monitoring systems ranging from drones to facial recognition technologies in the hope of reducing crime rates and making criminal detection easier.
Unsurprisingly, such invasive technology does not come without ethical questions and concerns.
Although evidence suggests that its use in legal political protests raises serious problems, such as violating privacy and targeting marginalised groups, it continues to be used with minimal regulation.
Not for the first time, concerns were raised in 2020 when the death of George Floyd sparked protests across the world. It was revealed that the Department of Homeland Security used aerial surveillance in Washington D.C and 13 other cities to monitor the protests.
Federal agents were then able to view the live footage on their phones and if needed, store it for future prosecutions.
Many of those who champion the use of drones as a surveillance tool argue that it is minimally invasive and no different to being observed by strangers in public places. However, a 2017 report by Statewatch highlights a number of concerns around the use of aerial surveillance, arguing that it removes public anonymity, invades personal space and is capable of “undermining the process of protest mobilisation”.
Comparing drone surveillance with other forms of observation is misleading; with drone surveillance, protesters are rarely told how long footage will be stored or where it will be stored, and it is unclear who may have access to this data and who it may be shared with.
Considering this, it’s unsurprising to learn that a lack of regulation has led to an increase in public suspicion and hostility towards the police.
One of the greatest concerns surrounding an increase in surveillance is its potential to silence dissent. Here in the UK, the Government’s Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill has been accused of undermining the right to protest, as the legislation gives police forces greater powers to tackle “non-violent” protests which are either considered disruptive or block access to Parliament.
When plans for the bill were announced in 2020, Liberty – the UK’s largest civil liberties organisation – condemned the restrictions on the right to protest, arguing the legislation is “another attack on our ability to stand up to power”.
Campaigners have also argued that a rise in technological surveillance seems to coincide with Government plans to undermine protest.
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Mass surveillance is on the rise in the UK and in November 2020, UK Drone Watch submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to all regional police forces. All forces refused to provide information on the covert use of their drones and many refused to respond at all, but at least 10 admitted to using them to monitor public protests.
Campaigner Jonathan Cole told The Morning Star: “It’s extremely worrying that a number of police forces feel that it is now legitimate to use drones and to monitor and film perfectly legal public protests”.
In recent years, many protests have been monitored by aerial surveillance in the UK including protests from Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, far-right groups and HS2 marches.
Polling for Drone Watch by Yonder revealed that of the 2000 participants, 60% were worried about the impacts on privacy and civil liberties, and 67% said they were worried about safety implications.
Evidently, the line between spying and protecting crowd safety is a thin one and without regulation, such powerful technology is left open to abuse in the wrong hands.
As well as concerns surrounding the suppression of dissent, it’s also feared that mass surveillance is being used to disproportionately target marginalised groups and encourage racial profiling.
Coleman and McCahill argue that “the use of surveillance technologies often reinforces existing social positions, particularly positions of marginalisation along the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality and age” after the Computer Law and Security Review discovered that the use of unmanned aerial vehicles typically targets the same suspects, usually anti-government protesters, the poor and people of colour.
Even if we draw our attention away from law enforcement, research suggests that many algorithms are inherently racially biased.
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Research by black scholars Joy Buolamwini, Deb Raji and Timnit Gebru concluded that facial analysis algorithms misclassified black women almost 35% of the time, while white men did not face the same problem.
If the research proves that the technology is inherently racist, why was it put in the hands of law enforcement? With minorities already being unfairly targeted by the police, surely the use of such technology only amplifies the issue of racial policing across the globe.
If surveillance technology continues to remain unregulated, the potential for abuse and corruption will continue. As public concern continues to rise and tensions with law enforcement are heightened, it’s imperative that public debate and commitments to change are prioritised.
The threat to civil liberties and society’s rights to protest are very real and without intervention, such technology risks suppressing our rights to challenge legislation and voice our opinions on the issues that matter.