Opinion: if you are a law abiding citizen, should the amount of surveillance you encounter on a daily basis be a matter of concern? 

It might not come as a surprise. After all, we are all familiar with the presence of CCTV cameras everywhere we go. Yet the city is not only watching us, but also listening to us and tracking our movements through a combination of cameras, microphones and several types of sensors that detect presence, motion, heat and distance among other things.

With all its digital surveillance apparatus, the contemporary city constitutes a reverse format of the Panopticon, the penitentiary model conceptualised by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. This consisted of a circular building with prison cells surrounding a tower in the middle where a single watchman had direct visual contact with all the cells. As inmates couldn’t tell which way the watchman was looking, they had to assume that they were being watched at all times, which in turn regulated their behaviour.

Plan of the Panopticon from "The Works of Jeremy Bentham vol. IV, 172-3" by 
Jeremy Bentham

Nowadays, we are all standing in the tower in the middle and subject to the surveillance of a network multiple cameras, audio monitoring systems and several types of sensors. Although we are so used to it that we take it for granted and it doesn’t necessarily impact on our behaviour in public space, we know for certain that we are being watched. However, what we don’t know is how all this personal information about us which is harvested in public space is processed, where it is kept and for what reasons it is being processed. 

But should we be concerned? To answer this question, we must take into account a broader range of factors, including the socio-political context of any particular city. For example, a network of more than 10,000 CCTV cameras are located in public spaces in the Chinese city of Guiyang. These are linked to a facial recognition system which is capable of locating criminal suspects and notifying the nearest police officers to make arrests in a matter of minutes.

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From RTÉ Radio One's News At One, RTÉ Science and Technology Correspondent Will Goodbody reports on the Data Commissioner's call for updated surveillance laws

However, as with other surveillance systems, this system is not 100 percent accurate and could certainly lead to false arrests. It also implies that citizens cannot be trusted, even if they are not on the law enforcement’s radar. Such a system, which is part of China’s nationwide surveillance programme Skynet, doesn’t come as a surprise in a country that is also known for its large scale internet censorship initiative (known as the Great Firewall). 

We are less likely to see such a development in Ireland, but how does Dublin watch, listen and sense us? And what are the consequences of this process? The Dublin Traffic Management and Incident Centre (TMIC) is a  control room that controls the transport network and traffic flow of Dublin 24 hours a day. It processes information from over 300 CCTV cameras, 1,000 bus transponders (which pinpoint the location of Dublin buses) and sensors at traffic intersections that can detect the number of vehicles and pedestrians waiting for the green light. Based on an automated and adaptive traffic management system, the TMIC can dynamically adjust the flow of traffic by altering the timing of traffic and pedestrian lights.

While this system performs multiple adjustments based on the information collected from surveilling Dublin’s roads, it is also subject to political decisions made by human beings to prioritise certain road users. For example, priority is given to buses as they approach a junction, which in turn might mean delays for other road users. Perhaps the implied message is that you should be taking the bus to go to work.

A screenshot of CCTV camera footage of Dublin's road network

There is no direct way of influencing or changing the output of the TMIC system unless you are a pedestrian. In that case, as you press the pedestrian crossing button outside of rush hour you might notice that the light turns green at a much faster rate than usual, much to the annoyance of drivers. During rush hour, however, the traffic lights are more likely to favour motorised transport, regardless of your best intentions to walk to work (or the bus stop).

The city also listens. In Dublin, a network of 14 dedicated sound level monitoring stations measures the sound levels at major noise sources and this information that can be used later to plan for the reduction of noise exposure for environmental reasons.

The city is not only watching us, but also listening to us and tracking our movements through a combination of cameras, microphones and several types of sensors

However, the monitoring of sound levels in other cities is carried out with very different intentions. For example, in the United States several major cities have adopted a technology called Shotspotter, based on a network of acoustic sensors that can track gunshots within seconds and pinpoint their location so that law enforcement agents can react quickly. On the Shotspotter’s company website, a quote by a Chicago police officer praises the technology for reducing gun violence in the city. Although such technologies have not yet been implemented in Dublin, Gardaí have been increasingly using listening and vehicle tracking devices, especially in relation to organised crime gangs, which in turn has been subject to media scrutiny.

But if you are a law abiding citizen, should you be concerned? And is the government use of your data acceptable? Would you be willing to accept that the use of the data collected about you as you move through the city is fair and used in a proper manner? The use of surveillance systems by public authorities has also been scrutinised and this is an important step towards transparency and adequacy to privacy rights. However, the willingness to accept (or reject) these technologies is a personal decision influenced by your awareness of these technologies of surveillance, how they might benefit you and what you think is an adequate level of privacy.

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From RTÉ Radio One's Drivetime, Caithriona Murphy of Irish Farmers Journal on how many farmers have invested in expensive CCTV systems to combat rural crime

One of the ways to empower citizens in relation to these contentious matters is to put them in the control tower of the surveillance technology or, in the reverse engineered model of Bentham’s Panopticon, in control of the networked surveillance apparatus. For example, the 2.4Ghz urban intervention project by Benjamin Gaulon in several European cities (including Dublin) uses wireless video receivers to hack into surveillance cameras located in public space and display the video feed from the camera in a screen attached to street lamp posts located near the cameras. This form of reverse engineering of surveillance enables citizens access to the same vantage point of the surveillance cameras.

Building upon this concept, the Dublin Dashboards project consists of a website that displays the outcome of the collection of several types of city data (some of which is live streamed) across several interfaces. This enables citizens to monitor Dublin’s river water levels, sound levels, weather, CCTV cameras, car park space and public bikes availability in real time. 

Always feel like somebody's watching me and I have no privacy. Photo: iStock

As the Dublin Dashboards project evolves (and depending on the legalities of merging streaming data from several public and private sources), it is possible that we will be able to surveil Dublin through a fully interactive map in the near future. We can then compare, merge and interpret multiple data sets for several purposes, such as transport, house purchases, safety warnings, shopping and so on. Such a model, where we have access to the surveillance apparatus and can use it to our advantage, might help us warm up to the contemporary reverse Panopticon model, as long as it doesn’t try to categorise us or restrict our ability to move in public space.

Our awareness of the ability of this apparatus to improve important citywide issues, such as Dublin’s rush hour traffic, also helps us accept their need to be deployed, subject to fair privacy rules. However, as China’s Skynet project reminds us, we need to be aware of the social and political impact of surveillance in our cities rather than simply accept it without reflecting on its future consequences.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ