Outside the few months during which Game of Thrones airs on HBO, I watch only a single T.V. show -- and not even a well-known one. While the rest of the world remains glued to Scandal, Parks & Recreation, and Orange is the New Black, I remain a resolute fan of Person of Interest. Each episode begins with the following monologue from Harold Finch (played by Michael Emerson), one of the world's most elite computer scientists:
"You are being watched. The government has a secret system, a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything: violent crimes involving ordinary people, people like you -- crimes the government considered 'irrelevant.' They wouldn't act, so I decided I would."
What was so novel about this premise was that, when it first aired in 2011, such an idea seemed impossible. For a "machine" loaded with the most sophisticated facial and voice recognition software imaginable to tap into each and every security camera on street corners, in shops, from cell phone microphones -- and then to use this information to track prospective perpetrators or victims of crime -- was an idea out of an Orwellian world. To simplify many elements at play here, we have the technology; we would need the faces, the voices, and the recognition of millions.
And yet that day has been fast approaching, and may have just arrived. Although the use of criminal mugshots and DNA samples to build complex databases for later tracking is far from new, BBC UK cited evidence just today that the United Kingdom is cranking this practice up a notch.
Anywhere between "hundreds of thousands of" and up to "18 million" innocent citizens have been added to a massive database used for facial recognition, which -- although technically complying with the UK's Data Protection Act of 1998 -- has sparked concern beyond even their borders. This database is already in use by the Metropolitan Police, Leicestershire Police, Border Force (i.e., in airports throughout the UK), and Britain's spy agencies.
Although officials contend that such a use of non-criminal data will add to the cost effectiveness and reliability of their current methods in criminal tracking and violence prevention, such a method brings into question the idea that if technology can make it possible, it should be implemented...even before courts decide on its potential unlawfulness. Quoting Biometrics Commissioner Alastair MacGregor,
"I think there is always a danger that if you can do something then you will do it, the technology takes over [...] without giving the attention to the other issues that arise in relation to it as one should."
As I have discussed in my pieces on Europe Versus Facebook and the all-too-common ownership of our data among third parties, society's concept of privacy that we were born into has ceased to exist. In the digital age, increasingly little remains out of the reach of Google, Apple, the government, and mass data agencies. And yet, unlike the financial profits gained by third parties in the peddling of our personal lives, this breach of privacy is a unique one: it may have an upside. It just might save lives. With the promise of reduced violence looming on the horizon, it may be difficult -- if not impossible -- to pry such data from the grip of law enforcement.
It remains to be seen whether UK courts will rule this development unlawful and, should this be the case, whether police forces will relinquish their hold on the innocent masses. As of now, it looks like Person of Interest is fast approaching reality.