All the risks of Big Brother in our cities

From meeting places to observation areas, video surveillance systems risk transforming our cities into large areas of control. Electronic eyes, located in various places, with the promise to protect us. Cameras capable of observing us thanks to artificial intelligence and recognition software. Able to divide us into categories, recognize the color of our coat and potentially follow us in all our movements. In the name of greater security not based on any data – experts confirm – which opens the way to more questions than answers.

Who sees our data, how long they remain, is the database in which they are stored safe, have citizens ever been asked for consent to process such personal information? These are some of the questions raised by the deputy of the Democratic Party Filippo Sensi, who in April filed a bill for a (temporary, until 31 December 2021) moratorium on the use of facial recognition systems in public places. «It looks like Big Brother, but technologies allow it. Let’s take some time to establish a national regulatory framework, ”he explained to L’Espresso. Because in our country, at the moment, there are no laws specifying the use of biometric recognition systems (characteristics of a person, for example the shape of the face, iris, tone of voice). Nor evidence that these technologies bring down crime rates. And then, Sensi wonders: “Are we willing to pay them if the price is our data?”.

Shot in a church in Rome, 2018. From the photographic project “Self Portrait from Surveillance Camera” by Irene Fenara. The artist’s gaze, turned towards the lens, becomes an act of resistance to impose his own identity on the controlled world

So far, Italy has replied “no”. Because the smokiness of the regulatory system allows administrations to move in no particular order. The first case was Como, where the Municipality had installed video surveillance systems with facial recognition. Then blocked following the intervention of the Guarantor for the protection of personal data, which imposed their deactivation. And while the European Parliament he asks the Commission to ban biometric video surveillance and Facebook announces of wanting to suspend the use of facial recognition, in Italy the risks associated with the indiscriminate use of this technology are still underestimated. “The culture of data protection is missing, unlike other European countries”, comments MEP Brando Benifei, member of the Special Commission on Artificial Intelligence. For this reason, perhaps, and looking for an easy way to solve the problem of security, in Udine hundreds of thousands of public money have been invested to purchase plants that are currently unusable, namely cameras that could potentially support facial recognition software. The same intelligent video surveillance system stuck by the Guarantor after the Como case. “The chief prosecutor has asked the Municipality to expand the video camera system,” says the councilor for security Alessandro Ciani. Yet, at the beginning of the year and following the pandemic, the police commissioner Manuela De Bernardin declared “that she had registered a generalized decline in the number of crimes, noting the growth of computer crimes”. Impossible to prevent with a camera.

There are no data that can confirm that the killing of crime goes through the surveillance of electronic eyes. “I care about the safety of citizens, but putting it on the level of biometric recognition, for me, means moving the phenomenon, not managing it”, declares the new councilor for innovation of the municipality of Torino Chiara Foglietta. In the city, according to the “Argo” project wanted by the former mayor Chiara Appendino, hundreds of cameras should have been installed. The program, finalized in October 2020, provided that the Municipality allocated 800 thousand euros and the Ministry of the Interior 700 thousand. But for the moment the doubts of Foglietta, who in addition to politics is also an engineer, have suspended the work: «I have great doubts about the initiative, about the tender, and above all about who will check the data and their treatment. Where will all that information go? And will they be in the hands of the public or private companies? ”He asks. The main node, once again, revolves around the racceptance of biometric data, to which the councilor categorically opposes. On this point he tried to reassure the company 5T srl, which already controls the Turin mobility and took care of announcing the tender for the construction of “Argo”. So far without success.

Shot in a park in San Benedetto del Tronto, 2019. From the photographic project “Self Portrait from Surveillance Camera” by Irene Fenara. The artist’s gaze, turned towards the lens, becomes an act of resistance to impose his own identity on the controlled world

In final document of the project, writes 5T, the only data saved will be «the metadata». Only apparent reassurance, since the examples indicated are “the distinction between men and women, the color of clothing and shoes, objects such as bags, backpacks, hats”. And therefore, activists and technology experts agree, indirect elements with which to trace the biometric characteristics of passers-by. In short, you don’t necessarily need to frame someone’s face to collect their data. L’Espresso tried to ask Aladina Radio – the winning company of the tender that should build the technological infrastructure – and 5T for explanations. Without receiving an answer.

“Metadata is a hybrid between facial recognition and checks carried out by normal cameras,” explains Laura Carrer, head of the digital rights unit at Hermes Center, an organization committed to the protection of civil rights. Underlining how, by crossing information on gender and clothes worn, it is possible to follow a person in all his movements within the city. The implications are different and not only related to the breach of personal data: identifying passers-by in a binary way can confuse biological sex with gender and does not recognize trans people.

Taken at a bus stop in Milan, 2019. From the photographic project “Self Portrait from Surveillance Camera” by Irene Fenara. The artist’s gaze, turned towards the lens, becomes an act of resistance to impose his own identity on the controlled world

Diletta Huyskes, head of the advocay department of Privacy network, an organization active in the promotion of digital rights, also finds the same critical points: “Dividing the world into binary categories means relying on automated principles, universalizing them, regardless of society and the changes that may occur in it. occur”.

The indiscriminate rush to surveillance it also penalizes citizens, who are the main recipients of video-security measures on paper, never actually involved in the decision making process. It’s hard to say whether they’d be in favor of these technologies anyway if they knew they were paying for smart cameras with their data. For this reason, Privacy network is working on the creation of an observatory to map the systems used by the public administration and the government. And, with Hermes Center and other international realities, it joined the campaign, “Reclaim your face” (over 60 thousand signatures already collected) to ban the use of biometric technologies in the European public space.

The address of the European Union seems to go towards an ethical approach to the topic of artificial intelligence. Followed – albeit very slowly – also in Italy. In April, the Privacy Guarantor rejected the facial recognition system Sari real time of the Ministry of the Interior, calling it “a possible form of surveillance and mass identification”. The mechanism, through a series of cameras, would have made it possible to analyze the faces of the subjects shot in real time, comparing them with a database capable of containing up to 10 thousand. And a few days ago Fabio Chiusi, project manager of Algorithm watch, an organization that deals with analyzing the impact of artificial intelligence systems on society, was heard in the Chamber of Deputies. Under consideration was Sensi’s proposed moratorium, limited, however, to the ban on facial recognition only. But for Chiusi the question is wider and the ban should be extended to any form of biometric recognition: physical, behavioral, affective and emotional characteristics. “There is no form of indiscriminate Big Brother in democracy,” he commented to L’Espresso.

Shot in Milan, 2021. From the photographic project “Self Portrait from Surveillance Camera” by Irene Fenara. The artist’s gaze, turned towards the lens, becomes an act of resistance to impose his own identity on the controlled world

Carlo Blengino, a criminal lawyer expert in data protection and law of new technologies, also shares the same opinion. The rights impacted by video surveillance technologies are many: data protection, confidentiality and respect for private life. All preconditions for the proper exercise of fundamental freedoms. “When we are filmed we behave differently, we are not really free if we know we are being watched. We do not know what information the algorithm extracts from our personal data, if the purposes for which they are stored today will be the same tomorrow, nor how protected are the servers on which they are stored “. In Italy, adds Blengino, a plan for the development of extremely invasive technologies for surveillance purposes is looming. Of which the “capacity decree”, in force and being converted, is one of the latest examples. In addition to loosening the measures for entering cultural and recreational activities, the decree has in fact expanded the possibilities of the public administration to process citizens’ data, effectively reducing the power of the Guarantor, the only authority so far able to stem the indiscriminate use of biometric recognition systems.

Source: L'Espresso – News, inchieste e approfondimenti Espresso by

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