Eleven Hundred Agency

Big Brother Under Scrutiny

By Sarah Hankins

A little earlier this year, a report was released denouncing the UK's high-tech surveillance systems for failing to keep pace with the recent slew of technology advancements. Dashcam footage, enhanced facial recognition and the increasing use of biometrics are just some of the innovations surreptitiously scooping up personal data. The report, led by Professor Fraser Sampson – Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner – condemned the UK's governing bodies for gross failure to regulate.

 The challenge of regulating evolving technology is nothing new. Take for example smartphones, which opened the door to all sorts of potential – both harmful and helpful. Apps designed to bring enjoyment to our lives have since found themselves under scrutiny. Hence the recent hearing for TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, in which – much like Mark Zuckerberg before him  – the tech founder was grilled by legislators who didn't always sound like they understood the questions they were asking.

Closer to home, the Home Office has acknowledged that more needs to be done to regulate data generated from surveillance technology but so far, it has only suggested scrapping of what is currently in place.

Today’s UK surveillance laws are complex, not least because they intend to balance national security needs with individual privacy rights. Under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (IPA), UK law enforcement and intelligence agencies can collect and analyse communications data, such as phone records and internet browsing history, and intercept communications, including emails and phone calls. This can be done with a warrant issued by a judge, subject to specific legal criteria being met, or with a targeted equipment interference warrant. With proper justification, government agencies can gain access to personal devices and networks to further augment their data pools.

Yet today, we don’t just use our phones, email and the internet to communicate. We also rely on facial recognition, video doorbells and more, which add to the existing treasure trove of personal, financial and medical data. Access to these enriched datasets could theoretically open the door to vast public surveillance. Rules are in place to stop this from happening, but it's easy to get swept up in an Orwellian fiction.

When thinking about the ethics of surveillance, it’s important to remember that public safety is still the ultimate goal, but regulation is certainly needed to assure the public that there’s no abuse or misuse of power. Professor Sampson’s report highlights where precisely the UK needs to improve when handling data generated from these new technologies. However, until these recommendations are introduced, you might want to take one more look at your app permissions.