THEY’RE watching you. When you walk to work, CCTV cameras film you and, increasingly, recognise your face. Drive out of town, and number-plate-reading cameras capture your journey. The smartphone in your pocket leaves a constant digital trail. Browse the web in the privacy of your home, and your actions are logged and analysed. The resulting data can be crunched to create a minute-by-minute record of your life.
Under an authoritarian government such as China’s, digital monitoring is turning a nasty police state into a terrifying, all-knowing one. Especially in the western region of Xinjiang, China is applying artificial intelligence (AI) and mass surveillance to create a 21st-century panopticon and impose total control over millions of Uighurs, a Turkic-language Muslim minority (see Briefing). In Western democracies, police and intelligence agencies are using the same surveillance tools to solve and deter crimes and prevent terrorism (see Technology Quarterly). The results are effective, yet deeply worrying.
Between freedom and oppression stands a system to seek the consent of citizens, maintain checks and balances on governments and, when it comes to surveillance, set rules to restrain those who collect and process information. But with data so plentiful and easy to gather, these protections are being eroded. Privacy rules designed for the landline phone, postbox and filing cabinet urgently need to be strengthened for the age of the smartphone, e-mail and cloud computing.