Today, smart cities across the globe have implemented ICT in a bid to improve the efficiency and sustainability of urban environments, while reducing resource and cost consumption. One of the areas such cities have invested in is surveillance, which is used to monitor different aspects of urban living through strategically placed sensors and cameras.
The seen and unseen sensors collect and transmit data, which is aggregated and analyzed by governments and local authorities to extrapolate the problems cities face in various sectors, especially crime prevention, waste reduction, energy use, and traffic management.
Digital surveillance is no longer a reserve for particular cities. Today, it’s not uncommon to find a wide array of security apparatus deployed in urban areas, which are aimed at combating modern security threats.
Does digital surveillance mean that you are a perceived threat?
We cannot understand the deployment of surveillance equipment across urban areas by focusing on what they do. We can get a deeper understanding of this technology by digging deeper into who it is used by and who it is used against.
To understand this, we must look at two types of digital surveillance. There exists “luxury surveillance,” which is an expensive, voluntary, and sleek kind of surveillance, which is commonly used by people who want to get noticed. Then, there is “imposed surveillance,” which is the complete opposite. It is an involuntary, clunky, and overt form of digital surveillance, which is often meant to stand out.
We can differentiate luxury surveillance and imposed surveillance by looking at fitness trackers and electronic ankle devices. The former is equipped with the best technology, which includes GPS, microphone, and other features that measure heart rate and activity level.
Some people even install other features in their devices for example – NordVPN which protects their privacy, and ensures they use the internet from these devices in anonymity. This virtual private network provides them with a robust encryption, which keeps their activities off the radar of the ever-prying eyes of hackers and snoopers.
Wearable technology is worn by individuals who are interested in improving their body functions. Simply put, they are worn by people who choose to.
On the other hand, electronic ankle devices are assigned to people who are out on parole or those awaiting trial. They are equipped with high-end technology, including blood alcohol level monitors, microphones, and speakers. These surveillance devices are imposed and are often compulsory to wear.
As opposed to self-tracking devices, electronic ankle monitors are bulky and pose a challenge when one tries to conceal them under a pant leg.
The dynamics brought about by digital surveillance technology are reshaping the social life of cities, communities, and neighborhoods.
The ringfication of the neighborhood
Most people today in urban environments use Amazon Ring Doorbells. These devices help them monitor their homes and record suspicious and criminal behavior, which can be used by police to crack criminal cases easily.
We cannot shun away from the fact that surveillance has enabled homeowners to get actionable evidence that they can use to report minor criminal cases such as vandalism. Amazon’s Ring doorbell allows people to post footages to Neighbors, a social networking platform owned by amazon; thus, everyone, including those who are not Ring owners to get information about suspicious activity in the neighborhood.
Ring simply constructs a web of police surveillance, which would traditionally be impossible. This gives homeowners a feeling of safety and security.
Nonetheless, Ring doesn’t come without its fair share of criticism. There are concerns about the privacy of next-door neighbors who don’t want to be monitored every time they pass by the cameras. Additionally, there have been cases where people have used this technology to frame others. They fake crime and use it to punish those they don’t like for some reason.
Digital surveillance infrastructure in public spaces
Digital surveillance equipment is not just found in people’s homes but is also found in public areas. For instance, Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs) are cameras that are used to capture the license plates of passing vehicles and match them against existing databases.
These cameras are located in a host of places and are cross-referenced with a database of more than 2.2 billion location data points.
For a number of years now, the NYPD has used ALPRs for a number of things, including monitoring cars parked outside mosques. What makes it even more interesting is that citizens are allowed to purchase this technology and install it in their property or at the entrance of a neighborhood.
Even though this technology comes with a considerable number of benefits, it makes the entire population know that it’s being watched. Also, it creates fear of the invasion of privacy, not to mention that some are afraid that they might be falsely identified by this technology, or rightly identified, but falsely implicated in crimes they didn’t commit.
Surveillance technology promises to reduce crime and create a sense of security and safety in smart cities. More often than not, however, these technologies continue to fuel negative feedback between communities and individuals who watch or are being watched. The only parties which benefit from the friction created by this technology are the companies that get monetary gains from the fear they help produce.