Ethical Surveillance?

Ethical surveillance

This article was first published in Fire and Security Matters Magazine April 2020:

Will state run surveillance measures ever be accepted in the Western world?

It has been reported in the media that Eastern World nations have been effective in using their state owned video surveillance technology combined with personal data to contact trace, identify, track and enforce lock down and quarantine measures.

The publicly reported numbers appear to support the suggestion that the measures have been effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19 to less than 100 cases per day. But in these regions, where surveillance is a state run activity the individual does not have a choice.

The success of this level of surveillance in reducing the infection rate leads us to talk about the elephant in the room. Could we ever see this level of state surveillance and intervention becoming accepted in the UK’s democratic society?. The sentiment is highly unlikely.

In South Korea the country started rigorous testing at the onset of the outbreak having learned lessons from the MERS epidemic in 2015 and introduced contact tracing which combined mobile phone, location and health data resulting one of the lowest death rates and much reduced infection rate without a complete lock down. The public chose health over privacy to collaborate with this national effort.

There is a vast of pool security and surveillance technology in the UK

There is a vast pool of deployed security and surveillance technology in the UK which may lend itself productively within legal and ethical frameworks to enable the country to become and remain functional again. But the return to life as we knew it should not come at a high price – being the loss of human life or privacy.

The re-introduction of normal working practice increases the risk of further surges of infection. Due to the range of symptoms and the percentage of asymptomatic cases thought to be up to 50%, not everyone knows whether they have had the disease; although Government reports suggest that up to 95% of the population are still at risk. Just by running some crude extrapolations based on these numbers, the virus may prevail for another 3 years, that’s if an effective vaccine is not deployed within that time.

Against this backdrop, the idea that there may be a return to normality sometime soon lacks credibility

What can be done about ensuring public safety while we wait for the panacea? It is a race against time to create a safe environment for people to socialise and work in a reasonably normal way. People must be free to do this in order to stay mentally healthy and for the economy to recover. Video conferencing is a great invention, but lacks spontaneity. If society is forced to operate in a pre-arranged one directional way the connection between people may be further damaged.

To re-focus the debate back on the video surveillance technology in the UK, the cameras are mostly owned by the private sector and are operated and governed by the professional security industry under the strict privacy laws and SIA licencing which ensure the protection of individuals basic human rights.

This is an ethical industry which is not in a hurry to help to create a surveillance society

The industry has contractual and legal obligations to its customers and a moral duty to society to keep the technology under an authorised metaphorical lock and key.

Automated live facial recognition technology (AFR), hit the headlines when it was used by the Police to surveil crime hot spots. But when it was explained that it was used within strict legal and privacy frameworks, public support for the use of the technology in this way grew.

In the private sector, AFR is already used extensively where it has been proven highly effective in reducing retail crime, protecting students in the educational system and providing easy to use alternative payment authentication methods. The use of the technology is by consent for a lawful and legitimate purpose.

The Police and State can only gain access to private security systems if there is a legally justified reason, such as a terrorist attack

Evidence legitimately provided by private video surveillance systems has been pivotal in solving high profile crimes and in the case of the planned 14/7 London attack was cited by leading Police Chiefs at the time, to have played a substantial forensic role in preventing the second attack.

But the threat is even more complex now. While there is a need to keep people safe from unintentionally infecting each other, the virus alone is not the threat. It is normal lawful daily life which presents the risk. This is a paradoxical problem which we have not faced before. It is one which may be solved by joining up existing and new technologies.

Without additional detection and surveillance of some kind the only means of protecting the health of the public currently is through the use of PPE, social distancing, and staying at home. These are not viable long term measures. People need to be able to go about their lives safely and freely.

How can this secretive but vitally important private security industry help in the recovery from the social and economic devastation this pandemic has caused and will continue to cause?

Security technologies exist today in silos of application which may be integrated into new ways of doing things

Thermal sensors, AFR, video images, access control, cloud data integration, AI and machine learning are already in play but not currently working together to solve the problem.

There has been a quantum leap forward in the demand for the convergence of sensor data both on-premises and in the cloud due to populations gravitating towards cities. A joined up, cyber-secure approach to safety, security and communications has led to the concept of the Smart City where people now feel safe in previously unsafe environments.

In the physical security industry, focus has been on forensic review of an incident after the event. But the issue at the heart of the debate is a growing need for live, real time knowledge transfer across industries from healthcare, education, sports and hospitality, security and policing.

We have a new invisible and intangible bio-threat to add to the growing list which already includes cyber crime and terrorism. Many have talked about the threat of a pandemic, but none saw this coming when it did, nor could anyone have estimated the social and economic impact.

What technical and ethical issues need to be overcome if the technologies of the private security industry are to contribute to the new way of living without a loss of privacy?.

The public should be reassured that it is not so easy to re-purpose technology which may result in infringement of their privacy rights. Video surveillance and security systems are operated behind strict cyber security requirements within the suite of industrial IoT and cyber standards. The systems are strictly access controlled with only vetted users gaining access to the systems. They are secure closed user systems and none of which readily talk to each other. To join all of this up requires technical cooperation, sharing of APIs and transparency around what data may be shared, with whom and for what purpose within the legal umbrella of GDPR. The only piece of encompassing privacy legislation currently in place.

What if safe and ethical electronic barriers could be created in order to restore society to normality and these electronic barriers could be created by consent with the people, and through partnership between providers and across industries.

Video surveillance, thermal sensors, AFR and social distancing detection could help the public orientate themselves in a dangerous risky space. To make any public space truly safe, the people need to know whether they are free of infection. They need to be tested for the virus and its antibodies.

It is conceivable that some kind of “immunity pass” could be created

Within a rigorous new framework, it is conceivable that some kind of “immunity pass” could be created and when combined with detection and scanning equipment deployed in publicly accessible places, a system of automatic entry could be created. Much of the enabling infrastructure is already in place.

This may be a system which works by consent because although these may be publicly accessible areas, shopping malls and event venues are generally privately owned. Educational facilities are accessible to authorised members and users only. This concept of combining the available technology following a rigorous and effective testing programme, could be extended to border control and other publicly accessible areas where ID checks and AFR already happen.

Thermal sensors and AFR could be restricted to the entry and exit points and the connection with an immunity pass would be by choice. But if there is no verified immunity pass, entry would not be allowed.

The public may then be assured that these areas are guaranteed virus free. In which case we could see a return to safe public spaces in the near future. This may help to safely open up sporting events, general retail establishments, shopping malls, airports, transport hubs and educational institutions.

This could be a win win situation

This could be a win win situation whereby the parties are clear and transparent about their purpose and the rights of the individual are preserved. This is not state surveillance but it may be perceived as proactive protection by consent.

Since writing

Anekanta Consulting worked closely with the BSIA in order to create a new Guide to the Legal and Ethical use of Automated Facial Recognition. It can be downloaded free of charge from the BSIA web site here.

To find out how Anekanta Consulting can help you to plan your strategy, undertake horizon scanning and adopt a future focus contact us at or fill out our contact form here.

We'd love to hear your views.....

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Anekanta®Consulting and Anekanta®AI

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue Reading