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COMP3502 – Assignment Two – Privacy

For which I initially achieved 74%, upgraded to 84% after a remark.

Specification | My Submission


Select some modern technology (eg. mobile phone, smart card bus tickets, swipe cards, Fly Buys, web browsers) which may have some impact on personal privacy.

Discuss the influence of this technology on privacy.

Aspects you may want to consider include:





Overt Video Surveillance, Facial Recognition, and its Impact on Privacy









“The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live - did live, from habit that became instinct - in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.”

•  George Orwell's 1984





Ned Martin

Monday, 11 October 2004


Today, a hidden, wireless camera can tirelessly observe, through the dark, further and better than a human can. Systems that automatically recognize faces and suspicious activity are being developed and deployed. What was once science fiction is now reality, and people are being forced to face the new privacy issues this raises.

Surveillance, which has until recently been limited by the sheer manpower required, is now automated and rapidly making inroads into the most intimate parts of our daily lives. In 2002 it was estimated that over 25 million public surveillance cameras were in use worldwide[1], a figure expected to have climbed rapidly as the cost of video surveillance further decreased, bringing an increase in the everyday use or surveillance cameras, and an associated increase in the issues involved. Of these, 33 wide-scale government video surveillance systems have been installed in Australia, along with several more privately operated systems[2].

Video Surveillance

There are two main types of video surveillance – overt, where no attempt is made to conceal the fact that a subject is under surveillance, and covert, where the subject is prevented from knowing they are under surveillance. We examine overt video surveillance, but we do make a distinction between surveillance where a subject is unaware they are under surveillance, and surveillance where a subject is actively prevented from knowing they are under surveillance, as one of the issues facing overt surveillance arises when those being surveilled are not explicitly told. In particular, we examine the privacy concerns raised by overt video surveillance, chiefly as used today, and the various ways these can or should be countered. We examine the various ways in which video surveillance is used, and then consider likely directions this technology will take, the impact this may have on privacy, and current efforts to regulate and control this.

Video surveillance, at its most basic level, is the use of video cameras to observe or survey. It is often called CCTV or “Closed Circuit Television”. At its most abstract, video surveillance can be the modern-day equivalent to yesteryear's guards, a replacement for human police, or an omnipresent workplace companion who tells the boss everything you do – or don't do. Technically, modern video surveillance involves remotely operated and monitored systems of linked cameras able to tilt, pan, and zoom, and which can include the ability to record in the dark, detect motion, or any of a number of increasingly sophisticated new technologies such as automatic facial recognition.

Video surveillance can serve several purposes, the main being the protection of people and property, the detection and prevention of crimes, and the associated task of providing evidence towards the prosecution of a crime. In Australia , the main purpose of video surveillance has been to provide enhanced perceptions of safety in public places[3], which has been an arguable success.

Recent terrorism has seen a marked increase in security measures, including the use of surveillance cameras and an increase in general public awareness of the various methods used, and, with several countries launching concerted campaigns to install cameras in public areas, video surveillance is becoming increasingly popular as a form of crime deterrent. Public perception of the technology, however, varies greatly from country to country, with the British embracing public cameras as an effective form of crime prevention[4], while Canadians, as an example, are much more wary and less inclined to accept the public use of surveillance cameras[5].

Fierce debate rages over the actual effectiveness of cameras in crime control, with opponents claiming they are of no use at all – or can even increase the potential for crime by providing a false sense of security, while proponents claim camera installations have the potential to drastically reduce crime. [6] has echoed a view held by many other experts in the area, in a report to British House of Lords,

“…I firmly believe the overall justification for [surveillance cameras] is specious, untested and is based largely on emotive grounds. Claims about the impact of CCTV on levels and patterns of crime are frequently exaggerated and simplistic. …[C]rimes of passion, crimes involving drugs and alcohol, and actions by professional criminals are seldom prevented by the cameras. …[O]nly minor “opportunistic” crime is diminished by the technology.”

Another issue raised by the use of cameras as a crime prevention tool arises from the false sense of security they may engender. As [7] says,

“...[I]t is important that the presence of video cameras not lead a person to believe he or she will be rescued if attacked. Dummy cameras should not be used [...]. While a fake camera can create a temporary deterrent to some security incidents, the potential liability it creates due to a victim's impression of being rescued quickly is not acceptable”.

Despite these dim views, the use of video surveillance, and associated technologies like facial recognition, continues to increase, as does the public awareness of the technology – and with that, public antipathy.

Privacy, Perversion & Public Perception

Public tolerance of surveillance cameras, unsurprisingly, varies with their location and the perceived threat they are countering. Security that would often be considered intrusive under other circumstances is accepted at airports, for example,

Face recognition technology, while still in infancy, is a controversial but growing area of research with potentially disturbing implications. Face recognition has obvious advantages in the field of national security and the prevention of terrorism – something that has been receiving intense public scrutiny recently, but it also provokes strong negative reactions from people who perceive its potential for misuse as a more serious threat. It is also impossible for an individual to determine whether a surveillance camera is connected to a face recognition system or not, making potentially any camera a face recognition system, prompting strong criticism of the technology[8]. The prevalence of traditional video surveillance has also prompted many to question just how long it will be until face recognition is used for tasks such as marketing, and whether this should be allowed to happen.

Face recognition is still a new, largely untested and largely unknown, technology, which has lead to many commentators to voice unrealistic and at times paranoid views, with little or no basis in fact. One interesting example of some of the wildly optimistic and unrealistic viewpoints held by the public about such new technology can bee seen with Time magazine reporting that “The beauty of [face recognition] is that it is disguiseproof. You can grow a beard and put on sunglasses, and [face recognition] will still pick you out of a crowd[9],” whereas in actuality, even the best face recognition, even under ideal circumstances, is prone to mistake. Another example of a common misconception of the technology can be seen from a statement made by US Congressman Ed Markey talking about a controversial trial use of face recognition at the Super Bowl XXXV in Florida, “It's chilling, the notion that 100 000 people were subject to video surveillance and had their identities checked by the government[9]” Statements such as these tend to create a false sense of hysteria. People feel that their privacy is being invaded and they are being treated as potential criminals, whereas in actuality the system is doing little more than that which the police have always done, and is not recording any information about people, but merely comparing them against a list of known felons to attempt to find a match.

This brings us to the fundamental question regarding the use of video surveillance, and face recognition technology in particular – if its use in public spaces is a violation of an individual's privacy. Legally, it is generally considered that an individual cannot expect aspects of their physical characteristics that are normally publicly available to be private[10]. However, it is often not the straightforward aspects of such technology that give rise to privacy concerns, but the more insidious follow-on effects that could arise from networking, databasing and collaborating between various different surveillance techniques or locations. Some obvious examples spring to mind – the simple tracking of individuals in and out of airports and other transit hubs, down to the shopping habits of individual consumers as they leave and enter camera-ridden shopping centres. One simple, and often used, solution is to provide a warning that an individual is under surveillance – the inference being that the individual can then choose not to enter the area under surveillance if they do not wish to be observed. This poses the obvious problem that when major public areas such as train stations and shopping centres use video surveillance, an individual does not usually have an alternative option if they aren't willing to partake in the surveillance.

Another pertinent privacy issue arises with the storage of footage or other information taken by video cameras. Several obvious issues arise, ranging from the security of the stored information, through to its potential for future use. In Australia, very broad guidelines on data storage and security are laid down by [11], but there are no industry-wide guidelines or legally binding policies, allowing potentially many different levels of security, and as with most security issues, the overall security is only as strong as the weakest link. The lack of any enforceable guarantee of security or standard method of deployment[12] hasn't helped bolster public confidence in video surveillance, and has allowed protagonists of the systems to claim that there is, or will be, widespread abuse of the installed systems[13], although so far there has been no conclusive evidence to support (or disprove) their claims.

Given the lack of legal checks and limitations on the use of video surveillance, many people are attempting to create a societal consensus suitable for incorporation into a legal framework appropriate for governing the use of overt surveillance. Most other forms of surveillance already have well founded legal precedents or policies governing their use, which greatly enhance the individual's trust in them, but overt video surveillance is still something of an ungoverned area, allowing its almost unrestricted use, ethically or otherwise. Individual bodies using the technology are generally responsible for creating their own guidelines, should they wish, with public departments often creating comprehensive code's of practice, such as that used by the City of Sydney for their Street Safety Camera Program[14], but many in the private sector don't, leaving themselves and their surveillance systems almost totally unaccountable.


It seems clear that overt video surveillance is set to continue, and increase, in coming years – as will the controversy surrounding it, particularly as new technologies such as facial recognition mature. It also seems safe to conclude that, while there are definitely certain privacy losses from the widespread use of overt public video surveillance, the technology in itself is not a considerable privacy risk. The simple recording of an event at a single location by a public camera provides very little in the way of private information. It is the collusion between multiple sources of information that pose the more worrying privacy risks – perhaps the ability to track an individual across an entire network of cameras, or the use of data previously gathered from video surveillance to allow future facial recognition of an individual, or even the potentially insecure storage of footage. Issues such as these will become increasingly topical as the use of these technologies becomes more widespread and the public become more aware of the true capabilities of video surveillance and its associated technologies. There is also currently a great deal of hype and misinformation surrounding emerging surveillance technologies such as facial recognition, which should decrease as the technologies become more widespread and accepted by the public community, allowing a more reasoned approach to the entire debate.

To conclude, I quote The American Civil Liberties Union, who sum up the attitude held by a lot of the public irrespective of any facts, “We are extremely troubled by this unprecedented expansion in high-tech surveillance” [15].







[1] J. Wakefield, BBC News, February 7, 2002, “Watching your every move,” October 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/sci/tech/newsid_1789000/1789157.stm

[2] Dr D. Wilson & Dr A. Sutton, “A report to the Criminology Research Council,” Department of Criminology University of Melbourne, April 2003

[3] “ NSW Government Policy Statement and Guidelines for the Establishment and Implementation of CLOSED CIRCUIT TELEVISION (CCTV),” NSW Government , April 2003

[4] E. Short, J. Ditton, “Does closed circuit television prevent crime?,” CCTV Today , 1995;2:10–12.

[5] P. Danielson, “Video Surveillance for the rest of us: Proliferation, Privacy, and Ethics Education,” Centre for Applied Ethics Univ. of British Columbia, pp. 162, 2002


[7] P. Danielson, “Video Surveillance for the rest of us: Proliferation, Privacy, and Ethics Education,” Centre for Applied Ethics Univ. of British Columbia, pp. 166, 2002

[8] P. E. Agre, “Your Face Is Not a Bar Code – Arguments Against Automatic Face Recognition in Public Places,” October 2004, http://dlis.gseis.ucla.edu/people/pagre/bar-code.html

[9] L. Grossman, “Welcome to the snooper bowl,” Time , Feb 12, 2001.

[10] J.D. Woodard, “Super Bowl surveillance: Facing up to biometrics,” October 2004, http:///www.rand.org/publications/ IP/IP209/

[11] “ National Privacy Principles,” Office of Legislative Drafting, Attorney-General's Department, Canberra , pp5, Jan 2001

[12] “ Surveillance: an interim report 3. Overt surveillance: issues ,” Law Reform Commission NSW , 2001

[13] ACLU, “What's Wrong With Public Video Surveillance?,” October 2004, http://archive.aclu.org/issues/privacy/CCTV_Feature.html

[14] “City of Sydney 's Street Safety Camera Program Code of Practice,” Council of Sydney & Privacy NSW, 2000

[15] “Proliferation of surveillance devices threatens privacy,” archive.aclu.org/ news/2001/n071101a.html.