On Rejecting the New Normal | Adam James Pollock

In the midst of a nationwide lockdown, with a reintroduction of restrictions limiting social gatherings to six people being imposed by the country’s premier, it may feel as if our every move is being watched and modelled by those at the helm of government. While advice appears antithetical – adults should return to work and children should return to school, yet social meetings are to be reduced in participants – governance and control is not decided solely by the tactile decision-making of relevant authorities.

Increasingly, soft surveillance is being utilised in growingly invasive ways for the purpose of the greater good, with names and telephone numbers becoming part of the transaction for a pint in the local. Those influencing governmental decisions make use of algorithms and other forms of analysis to discern patterns and relationships in data to identify observational targets, with algorithms again being used after identification to track all further activities, behaviours and transactions of relevant individuals. Almost 50 years ago, philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault realised that such a development of a surveillance society would be authoritarian in form, regardless of its raison d’être. In Discipline and Punish Foucault wrote how panoptic surveillance affects “the grain of individuals, touches their bodies and inserts itself into their actions and attitudes, their discourses, learning processes and everyday life”. This is most true in the current socio-political climate, where data is the new religion, line graphs are its scriptures and the liberal middle classes are the unquestioning herd; a clear example is the use of logarithmic rather than linear scales to convey the numbers of coronavirus hospitalisations, particularly by Santé Publique France, which may make the current situation appear much worse to the casual or uninformed observer. 

Like the coronavirus itself, post-panoptic surveillance emerged first in China, with the British diplomat Charles Parton once referring to this interconnectedness of information systems as the fourth magic weapon in controlling the state, an ode to Chairman Mao’s historic Communist party line. Indeed, recent Chinese reconfiguration of internet governance has been key in developing solutions to the leadership’s growing fears regarding the future of the Chinese Communist Party’s dominance, as well as preventing organised opposition and resistance from the general population. Many in our Western nation may have forgotten that the Wuhan doctor who first alerted social media to the threat of this coronavirus had his posts removed by the state, in addition to being forced to sign a false confession, with his family being leant on to disregard his remarks. Only upon his death did social media truly become aware of the scale of the situation.

In China, this surveillance and subsequent control of the individual does not limit itself to the digital realm; rather, it utilises the digital to become a tangible facet of life. The ubiquitous connectivity of systems has allowed for every aspect of daily life to now be online and, as a result, monitored. Recognition technology is increasingly giving surveillance a sense of both omniscience and omnipotence, with all documented Chinese citizens belonging to a vast database with records of facial characteristics, voice data, fingerprints and DNA. Locational surveillance has also increased in ease, with mobile phones and computing having the ability to be linked to the country’s estimated 200 million CCTV cameras.

Earlier this year I spoke with Chris Daw, a Queen’s Counsel and legal commentator, who reiterated the notion that China’s surveillance practices are invading the UK. Surveillance capitalism – the notion that private firms are contracted on behalf of governments and other state bodies to undertake their surveillance practices – is well underway in our nation, with a large percentage of recognition software in use being manufactured by Chinese firms, often procured with the aid of government representatives.

In these new technologies, showcased to potential UK-based buyers at a showcase of international surveillance technologies in London, facial recognition comes as standard, with common extras for camera equipment including motion tracking, night vision and directional microphones. In the article I was discussing with Chris Daw, he notes one example which appeared to be an ultra-high resolution screen showcasing a live broadcast of proceedings in the exhibition hall, “but with coloured lines superimposed on [everyone’s] bodies, tracking

[their] movements … Every single movement of every single person in sight of the cameras was being captured by the system. The information was then analysed to predict [their] next moves, based on previous behaviour”.

Such vast quantities of data are intended to be relayed through a facial recognition engine with capabilities of recognising large numbers of faces per day from an extensive database, as well as credit card data, travel records, heart rate, body temperature, x-ray scanners, mobile phone GPS chips, car number-plate recognition systems and a multitude of other systems. The purpose of such systems is advertised as being the ideal of the societal modelling notion of the panoptic society, predicting the behaviours of individuals in an attempt to steer them away from negative actions, such as crimes and suicides, before they even happen. But of course, in the post-panoptic world, surveillance is constant and omnipresent, not just in situations where crime is most likely to happen. Daw noted that one surveillance technology manufacturer boasted that their system “would also be perfect for a school or nursery playground”.

Technology such as this being marketed to cities in the UK sparks much thought of the implications of current government legislation on their application. With masks and face coverings essentially being required the instant an individual enters a public space, will this negate the use of facial recognition software, or will it rather train the algorithms to better recognise individuals from smaller and less visible segments of their face? If such software is manufactured by Chinese companies with government ties, will the algorithmic lessons learnt be applied in China, too, such as by more easily recognising other users of face coverings, such as the Hong Kong protestors?

While there has been much evidence both in support of and opposition to mask- wearing as a method of lowering the transmission rate of viruses, in addition to a more philosophical discussion on the dangers to individual freedoms associated with enforced mask-wearing, little discourse has been had thus far in relation to the more intangible loss of freedoms related to government-mandated facial coverings on a global scale.

In 2018, Chinese premier Xi Jinping outlined a major goal for his country of “moving forward the construction of China as a cyber superpower through indigenous innovation”. Such innovation in surveillance practices certainly seems to be nearing indigenous status, occurring naturally as part of everyday life in developed countries. It is now time for the individual to question this new normal, for there is nothing normal about such a prevalent and accepted loss of freedom in the Western world.

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