In the futuristic novel, 1984, written in 1949, George Orwell foresaw a totalitarian world where people have little or no privacy, hence the motif of The Big Brother watching our every movement.
Now a serial Lothario will have to think twice before entertaining his mistress in swanky restaurant. You never know. A hidden camera could be transmitting real images to the rest of the world in the name of real-time advertising of the real thing.
Our Lothario is not safe in the street either. This is the era of the “eye in the sky.” Google, Apple, and other digital mammoths now have military-grade cameras that are helping them map the world in an effort to improve service delivery to their end users.
Mapping, still relatively new, is now being explored as a frontier in itself to not only help people find their way through the maze of highways and roads across countries but also to identify services in specific regions, going as far as identifying what specials are being offered by specific businesses through augmented reality (AR).
AR simply imposes useful data over mapped regions, helping the end user to identify basic things like landmarks to more complex things like specials on sale in a shopping mall.
An impressive example of AR is by Wikitude. By simple turning it on, Wikitude can identify cafes, restaurants, shops, and whatever they are selling, and even more impressive, can identify other Wikitude users and what devices they may have. Some cringe at what is clearly a breach of privacy.
The story, however, becomes worse. Google Street View is now called the “burglars’ friend” for the mere fact that the camera’s capture such high quality images, they can identify the type of lock on a door.
The technology, Open Windows, is exactly what it is — open windows. The cameras have captured activity inside homes through open windows, doors left ajar, sky lights, and even balconies.
Google has been attempting to obscure such details, but in many opinions, still lacks the ability to hide everything unnecessary. Now with the “eye in the sky”, if you are in a swimming pool and the camera captures this, and nobody flags it, the world is likely to see you in all your glory, uncensored, and there does not seem to be a regulatory framework for this.
In the Western world, where this has become more prevalent, political rhetoric is calling for better measures and solutions, with significant consequences for offenders. But one image is still one image among millions.
How assured are you that you know that you are not sitting somewhere on a server waiting for someone to pull up that image and see everything? The reality is that you could not be.
In Kenya, if the truth is what it is, there is not a lot to worry about, but the truth in this case is subjective. Private companies will not stop at anything to advance their financial gains, and Google itself is not an altar boy.
To be fair to Google, it is using best practices to ensure that some digital pervert does not transmit your unauthorised images to the whole, wide world. Back to square one. If there is not a proper regulatory system in place, what is the definition of best practices?
Sadly, there still is not one. For one, the current acting regulators are still at policy level, with all the possible scenarios still being explored.
The corporations are clearly not waiting for the regulator to limit their pervasiveness and are instead out-doing what they do best; crafting new ways of making money.
What many people do not realise is that the potential to inflict damage to one’s right to privacy is not exaggerated; it is a reality. It may be a while before it becomes a local problem, but that horizon is not creeping slowly our way; rather, it is hurtling like a comet to slap us with a heavy reality of what the future could become, and in some cases without our acknowledgement.
It comes down to very few things. Notably, respecting the right to privacy of individuals. In both cases, a regulator, independent of the government with end users’ interests at heart, needs to be created that will be able to help craft a policy that not only meets the government’s and corporates’ needs, but also the end users needs as well.
End users need much more of a say in this than the organisations since this is more about intruding into their lives. Without an independent regulator, both sectors, public and private, are free to misuse these tools without end users’ consent.
Nairobi, soon to join London and other cities, will be covered with cameras to monitor crime and acts of terrorism. At the possibility of a worst-case scenario, the best we can hope for is that the perpetrators can always be monitored and captured by camera, thus leading to their capture and prosecution.
A novel idea. But there are many unanswered questions. What if the system mistakes the perpetrator? After all, the system is still man-made and will, at the end of the day, be manned by people.
Then there is the issue of oversight. Who is to determine if the system is being used for the right purposes or not? The possibility of the system being used to spy on people for acts outside of crime or terrorism is still a huge reality and without proper oversight, is open and subject to misuse at best and abuse at the worst.
But the worst possibility comes down to security. The government is not the poster child of digital security. Government websites have been perpetually hacked and defaced, sometimes by foreign hackers, and sometimes by their own contractors.
While facts about any sensitive data loss can not be taken lightly, one can only imagine that if the government has been lax about security on its own infrastructure, then more complex platforms may suffer the same fate.
Before going to great lengths to instal cameras that may likely create more distrust between people and the government, a better approach would be to first ensure that the police are informed on time and have the means to get there and prevent the crime from happening or at the very least be in a position to pursue and capture the criminals.
If they are not achieving this with the infrastructure they have now, then cameras will do little to change the situation.