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Dilemmas of Privacy and Surveillance

Professor Nigel Gilbert FREng

Two years ago The Royal Academy of Engineering formed a working group to explore the future of technologies used for the large scale collection and storage of data, and the potential social impacts these technologies have. The question that concerned the group was whether these technologies could be used to create a ‘Big Brother’ society. Professor Nigel Gilbert FREng, who chaired the working group, suggests options for one of the most controversial aspects of current surveillance technology: surveillance cameras.

The Academy’s working group was interested in all technologies that could track a person’s movements and activities – from Oyster cards to supermarket loyalty cards – and the rapidly increasing capacity for data storage that allows collected data to be stored for very long periods of time. The group was particularly interested in the use of surveillance cameras, especially since the United Kingdom is reputed to have the highest density of such cameras in the world.

Modern surveillance cameras produce high-resolution digital images that can be stored indefinitely. These images can be analysed to pick out specific individuals using face and gait recognition technologies. Advances in image searching technologies mean that it could become possible to follow a specific person through many hours of camera footage. Modern surveillance cameras are a far cry from old-fashioned CCTV. They are more like public webcams, constantly watching over public spaces, so that in many urban areas it is not possible to be private or even anonymous.

This technology might not seem particularly new or threatening. After all, most people can be tracked everywhere they go via their mobile phone. Yet surveillance cameras pose a particular threat to privacy because unlike phones they show not only where someone is, but what they are doing, who they are with and exactly what is happening around them.

Public webcams may threaten one’s privacy, yet they offer what seem like clear benefits. The sad images of people in the moments before they were attacked can at least be used in the search for their murderers, and could play a part in the prevention of further terrible crimes. Should we, as citizens, give up some of our privacy to lift the curtain on the activities of terrorists and criminals? How can we enjoy the benefits of surveillance, while avoiding the threat of Big Brother? Surveillance of public places was not born with the invention of the camera. Pre-modern society was a society of self-surveying communities; everyone knew each other and shared in each other’s lives. Many will be glad that modern society is not so open, but might we still benefit from community surveillance?

A major benefit of surveillance cameras is the peace of mind they offer: knowing that an area is being watched over reduces the fear of crime and may also reduce its incidence. The benefit might be greater if one could see for oneself that there were no worrying activities – or if there were, they could be avoided and reported.

The nature of public webcams means that it is possible for surveillance footage to be accessed by community members via the internet and digital TV. The greatest value of this sort of ‘community webcam’ would be its power to prevent a Big Brother state. The authorities in Nineteen Eighty-Four held absolute power, keeping the citizen a helpless subject of surveillance. The East German Stasi recruited informants secretly and derived some of their power from no one knowing who was being watched or by whom. In contrast, making surveillance cameras accessible to the community would ensure reciprocity, the sharing of power between the watchers and the watched. Community members could object if they felt particular cameras were unnecessary or unnecessarily intrusive. This would limit the potential for voyeuristic or prejudicial misuse of surveillance. Sharing footage from public webcams would result in shared ownership of the system and could create a modern version of community surveillance. Such a system might be thought to be a greater intrusion on privacy than the one we have at present. Perhaps it is worse to be watched by many people within your own community than a handful of CCTV operatives. However, controls can be put in place to prevent the abuse of such a system. In Shoreditch, east London, there are cameras which can be accessed through the internet or a TV channel, so that residents can watch the area where they live. Access to this system is granted to community members only. The cameras cannot be directed by the residents so there is no option for stalking or spying.

There are further possibilities for making such a system acceptable. Webcam footage can be taken from a distance, so that it is sufficiently clear for people to survey an area, yet not so clear that they can easily track individuals. Alternatively, systems could be designed to broadcast still images extracted intermittently from the video stream. These would make clear what the camera is looking at without giving rise to some of the dangers of broadcasting live video.

Such systems may offer a way to navigate one of the dilemmas arising from surveillance cameras. As surveillance technologies become more powerful, they will pose greater threats while promising greater benefits. They will create dilemmas which need careful handling. Engineers, as those with the skill to devise the most beneficial surveillance systems, should help the decision makers make the best choices in these difficult cases. This is the aim of the report, entitled Dilemmas of Privacy and Surveillance, to be published this autumn.

Professor Gilbert is grateful to Dr Natasha McCarthy for her help in the drafting of this piece and in her role of secretary to the Working Group on Privacy and Surveillance.


Professor Nigel Gilbert FREng

Nigel Gilbert read Engineering at Cambridge. He completed a doctorate on the sociology of scientific knowledge and became a sociologist. He pioneered the use of microcomputers to help claimants calculate their entitlement to welfare benefits and more recently he has been instrumental in applying agentbased computational modelling in the social sciences. He has been a Pro Vice-Chancellor at the University of Surrey, and has contributed to Foresight and to the Economic and Social Research Council. He was elected a Fellow of The Royal Academy of Engineering in 1999.

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