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  • Why should we care about privacy?


    Claire Gaydon, writer and one of the performers in Piece of Me - a Britney-inspired comedy exploring surveillance ethics - meets with policy and campaigns manager Emmanuelle Andrews from Liberty to talk about CCTV, facial recognition, and why we should care about what happens to our data.

    As I walk through the hallway to the Liberty reception I stop to look at the prints on the walls of Edward Snowden, the Suffragettes, and the Empire Windrush amongst others. All the images include the text ‘Stand up to Power, Fighting for Freedom since 1934’. It strikes me how incredible it is that Liberty (along with other charities Privacy International and Big Brother Watch) exists. 

    Emmanuelle studied Law and Anthropology at uni but she didn’t like her degree. She discovered her passion was rooted in fighting police racism and police violence so she went on to do a master's in social justice in Canada, (full title: Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice) where she learned more about historical infringements on privacy of activists and people working against state violence.

    Emmanuelle: Privacy is a massive issue for marginalised communities because so much oppression is wielded when you’re able to out someone, shame them, stigmatise them. If you live in a society that doesn’t understand you or support your existence, privacy is a key way to protect yourself from harm.

    But privacy is also really integral to who we are as people, regardless of whether we live in a society with oppression or not. There’s a really good book by Danielle Citron called The Fight for Privacy: Protecting Dignity, Identity and Love in Our Digital Age. She talks about how privacy is really important for you to even understand who you are and how it's essential for human beings to flourish.

    During the research process for Piece of Me, I became really interested in facial recognition. I asked Emmanuelle how it’s currently being used in the UK and what the government's plans are for its expansion.

    Emmanuelle: So there are currently different types of ways that facial recognition is used. Two of the most common are live and retrospective. Live is where police put vans outside particular locations with CCTV cameras on top of them. When people walk past they have their biometrics scanned and compared to the biometrics of people who are on a police watch list. 

    Then there’s retrospective facial recognition which is essentially where police will run biometric data from stills of images or footage that they’ve captured from CCTV, social media, or custody images. Again they’ll scan this data against the data they have on their police watch list.

    Retrospective facial recognition has been happening for a really long time through the police national database. But there’s talk of them having blanket access to everyone’s driving licence and passport photos. So essentially anyone with a passport or drivers licence could end up in a police lineup - which completely challenges our understanding of innocent before proven guilty, not to mention all of the accuracy risks. There are also current plans to fit live facial recognition into fixed CCTV cameras in UK train stations. And I imagine they’ll also want to store this data for retrospective use as well.

    What's your personal opinion on CCTV and facial recognition? In an ideal world, would we have any?

    At the end of the day, surveillance can only ever do so much. It’s there because we expect crime to happen and because we want to hold people to account. But I would issue caution with our reliance on CCTV and footage. We've seen countless footage of police brutality but that increased visibility hasn't reduced police violence. That's an issue that's brilliantly explored in this article by researcher and lawyer Eda Seyhan. My position is not like, let's take away all the cameras. It’s more like, okay we’re in this position where we have a lot of CCTV, but how can we tackle the root causes of a lot of these issues.

    In terms of human rights harms, there’s a real difference between CCTV and facial recognition. Facial recognition is like having a fingerprint of everyone in the UK. And yes in theory it would be easier to tackle crime if the police had everyone’s fingerprints, but we realise that that’s not the society that we actually want to live in.

    And this is where international examples are really useful. There are regimes that do a lot worse to protesters, journalists, activists, whistleblowers for example and the majority of us would say well, we don’t want to live in a regime like that. But the way we prevent that from happening is by having really clear restrictions on things like surveillance and state power.

    These authoritarian regimes don't just happen overnight, they trickle in. All big moments in history, from the Nazi regime, to apartheid South Africa happen in this way - and many of the technologies they used, such as the social sorting of groups, are but earlier forms of what has now become biometric surveillance. So one day the government has access to a handful of facial recognition vans but then in the space of a few years, the government is like, okay we’ll just implement it into all train stations now. That's how it works. It's really important to remember the history of these things and how they came into being. 

    How can people play an active role in protecting privacy? 

    I think, if people connect with the idea that privacy is really important they’ll become more alert to when it’s being eroded. And then whether it be practical things like joining a Liberty campaign or signing a petition to resist further expansion of facial recognition, or even just having conversations in their communities - those things all make a difference. 

    I don’t want people to think that they need to shut down all their social media accounts and keep themselves private in this way because these spaces are also really useful for dialogue, expression, and experimentation. Public opinion drives policy and social change and so the more we talk and debate about these issues the more positive change we’ll see.


    Piece of Me

    Tue 21 May - Sat 1 Jun at 7pm

    Tickets £8 - £15 (+ booking fee)

    Claire Gaydon

    "Welcoming, inclusive, creative and life-affirming. I have learnt a lot myself in so many ways that will seep into all parts of my life. My self-confidence has massively increased"

    Human Jam participant