This is mainly about the UK, but some applies elsewhere too.
The UK Police are in trouble yet again for taking the side of criminals against the law-abiding population. Our police seem to have frequent trouble with understanding the purpose of their existence. This time in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders, some police forces decided that their top priority was not to protect freedom of speech nor to protect law-abiding people from terrorists, but instead to visit the newsagents that were selling Charlie Hebdo and get the names of people buying copies. Charlie Hebdo has become synonymous with the right to exercise freedom of speech, and by taking names of its buyers, those police forces have clearly decided that Charlie Hebdo readers are the problem, not the terrorists. Some readers might indeed present a threat, but so might anyone in the population. Until there is evidence to suspect a crime, or at the very least plotting of a crime, it is absolutely no rightful business of the police what anyone does. Taking names of buyers treats them as potential suspects for future hate crimes. It is all very ‘Minority Report’, mixed with more than a touch of ‘Nineteen-eighty-four’. It is highly disturbing.
The Chief Constable has since clarified to the forces that this was overstepping the mark, and one of the offending forces has since apologised. The others presumably still think they were in the right. I haven’t yet heard any mention of them saying they have deleted the names from their records.
This behavior is wrong but not surprising. The UK police often seem to have socio-political agendas that direct their priorities and practices in upholding the law, individually and institutionally.
Our politicians often pay lip service to freedom of speech while legislating for the opposite. Clamping down on press freedom and creation of thought crimes (aka hate crimes) have both used the excuse of relatively small abuses of freedom to justify taking away our traditional freedom of speech. The government reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre was not to ensure that freedom of speech is protected in the UK, but to increase surveillance powers and guard against any possible backlash. The police have also become notorious for checking social media in case anyone has said anything that could possibly be taken as offensive by anyone. Freedom of speech only remains in the UK provided you don’t say anything that anyone could claim to be offended by, unless you can claim to be a member of a preferred victim group, in which case it sometimes seems that you can do or say whatever you want. Some universities won’t even allow some topics to be discussed. Freedom of speech is under high downward pressure.
So where next? Privacy erosion is a related problem that becomes lethal to freedom when combined with a desire for increasing surveillance. Anyone commenting on social media already assumes that the police are copied in, but if government gets its way, that will be extended to list of the internet services or websites you visit, and anything you type into search. That isn’t the end though.
Our televisions and games consoles listen in to our conversation (to facilitate voice commands) and send some of the voice recording to the manufacturers. We should expect that many IoT devices will do so too. Some might send video, perhaps to facilitate gesture recognition, and the companies might keep that too. I don’t know whether they data mine any of it for potential advertising value or whether they are 100% benign and only use it to deliver the best possible service to the user. Your guess is as good as mine.
However, since the principle has already been demonstrated, we should expect that the police may one day force them to give up their accumulated data. They could run a smart search on the entire population to find any voice or video samples or photos that might indicate anything remotely suspicious, and could then use legislation to increase monitoring of the suspects. They could make an extensive suspicion database for the whole population, just in case it might be useful. Given that there is already strong pressure to classify a wide range of ordinary everyday relationship rows or financial quarrels as domestic abuse, this is a worrying prospect. The vast majority of the population have had arguments with a partner at some time, used a disparaging comment or called someone a name in the heat of the moment, said something in the privacy of their home that they would never dare say in public, used terminology that isn’t up to date or said something less than complimentary about someone on TV. All we need now to make the ‘Demolition Man’ automated fine printout a reality is more time and more of the same government and police attitudes as we are accustomed to.
The next generation of software for the TVs and games consoles could easily include monitoring of eye gaze direction, maybe some already do. It might need that for control (e.g look and blink), or to make games smarter or for other benign reasons. But when the future police get the records of everything you have watched, what image was showing on that particular part of the screen when you made that particular expression, or made that gesture or said that, then we will pretty much have the thought police. They could get a full statistical picture of your attitudes to a wide range of individuals, groups, practices, politics or policies, and a long list of ‘offences’ for anyone they don’t like this week. None of us are saints.
The technology is all entirely feasible in the near future. What will make it real or imaginary is the attitude of the authorities, the law of the land and especially the attitude of the police. Since we are seeing an increasing disconnect between the police and the intent behind the law of the land, I am not the only one that this will worry.
We’ve already lost much of our freedom of speech in the UK. If we do not protest loudly enough and defend what we have left, we will soon lose the rest, and then lose freedom of thought. Without the freedom to think what you want, you don’t have any freedom worth having.