There are sick minds everywhere. Including in Mauritius. There are those who envision a complete overhaul of our society, dream of one where strict compliance to their dogma is the only possibility. To achieve same, they are ready to resort to violent means. This is a fact and often the premise of those in the pro-surveillance camp who aver that a state should be allowed to defend itself from such harm. It percolates from a utilitarian perspective. Sometimes for the greater good, we need to sacrifice some of our privacy. It has its supporters, even on the left.

I believe that state surveillance, reasonably controlled and constrained, helps promote liberty and helps to protect against terrorism. Surveillance helped us win the Second World War because we were able to break the Japanese and German codes. Would anybody say we shouldn’t have done that? (Dershowitz, 2014)

Chetan Ramchurn

The key questions pertain to the efficiency of such a system in combating crime and the extent of the trade-off between privacy and the additional protection this system would purportedly bring. Surveillance has always existed. Technology significantly expands its possibilities and allows it to be ubiquitous with everyone falling under scrutiny. Surprisingly, there is little resistance to this potentially democracy-altering and fragilising system that the soon to be implemented surveillance project could be. Few MPs have raised their voices to breach the opacity surrounding the project. This could be explained by the fact that in the past, Labour’s biometric card already ruptured our privacy and this government specialises in going from bad to worse.

Shrouded in Secrecy

The population needs reassurances about how this will work. What we know so far is that this is a project that will run for two decades and that the costs are hefty. Based on the answers of Anerood Jugnauth in the parliament, we are talking about a staggering 456 million USD. It is a heavy investment on something we know near to nothing about. The cost over this period will be spread as follows:

–             Year 0 : USD 13 million (i.e. the current financial year)

–             Year 1 to 7 : USD 18.9 million yearly, and

–             Year 8 to 20 : USD 23.9 million yearly.

A cabinet decision of December 2017 has informed us that the ‘project […] aims at enhancing the security and safety of the public, comprises a CCTV Smart Camera Surveillance System, a Multimedia Radio Trunking System, a Central Watch and Management System, an Integrated Emergency Response Management System and an Intelligent Command System, to enable the Police Department to obtain better intelligence with a view to optimising response.’ Would this CCTV Smart Camera include facial recognition features? No further information has been offered on same.

The Powerful Watcher

As part of the other considerations that are related to the Safe City Project is the considerable power held by the watcher over the watched. Richards further states that this advantage can be misused for ‘blackmail, persuasion, or discrimination’. He further emphasises that ‘we are gradually losing our levers of influence over the most powerful members of society because they’re using exceptional powers and exceptional privileges such as the state secrets power…to remove themselves from our accountability.’ These misuses have been reported by the New York Times in 2009 when NSA employees were found to use surveillance to watch over their lovers, ex-girlfriends, and other individuals who were not perpetrators of any crime. Likewise, journalists with different views were monitored and screened out from press conferences.

As Edward Snowden points out, the belief among employees is that they are ‘good people doing bad things for good reasons’. Soon however, the employees reach the point of utilitarianism ‘where you say, ‘As long as it benefits my tribe, as long as it benefits my cohort, my group, my class, anything can be justified.’.

People ≠ Objects 

The issue with the utilitarian mantra of the pro-surveillance cohort is that it turns human beings into mere objects. As Cohen (2010) highlights, ‘Kant admonishes us to “always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any another, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.” Utilitarianism treats persons “simply as a means” (objects) instead of as “ends” (persons) and is, therefore, unacceptable’. This in turn creates the confusion between people and objects and reduces the human beings to mere ‘objects as if they were physical things to be tallied.’ Cohen (2010) upholds that unlike objects, our self-determining ability allows us to have rights and privacy is one of them. As such, we should not have our private space encroached upon by others.

Dangers to our democracy

The risks that surveillance poses are myriad. It dampens democracy as Richard points out it can ‘chill the exercise of our civil liberties.’ Constantly watched, most people would shun from engaging themselves in a faction that opposes the government of the day and would hesitate to embrace divergent views. Washington University School of Law Professor Neil Richards calls for the ‘protection of our intellectual freedom to think without state oversight or interference’.

The State is entitled to protect itself from the harmful effects of those ready to create havoc. But what does havoc mean? Would it mean any form of dissent against what the state does? In China, this takes the form of protection of ‘social stability’ which if any, is a distinctly Orwellian term meaning preserving the status quo. Would people raising their voice against a government that acquiesces to everything requested by the economic elite, that reduces our public domain by removing beaches from it, that privatises essential goods be guilty of disturbing social stability?

This government understands that knowledge is power as it tries hard, very hard to hold on to it. With scant information on this project and no empirical evidence presented to back its crime-reducing capabilities, the motives of our country’s leaders are difficult to ascertain. Even more so that any surveillance project would normally be accompanied by a battery of measures including improved lighting and police presence. At the moment, this is merely ‘the boot stamping on a human face.’ As previously with the light-rail project, this is an endeavour that seems poorly planned and which comes saddled with a burden that will weigh upon us over the coming decades. As Anerood would probably say, ‘Well, if that is so, it is so! What can I do?’*

References:

\    Greenwald, Alexis Ohanian, Alan Dershowitz, and Michael Hayden in conversation, by Rudyard Grifffiths. (2014) Does state spying make us safer? : the Munk Debate on Mass Surveillance Aurea Foundation

 

\    Cohen, E. (2010) Surveillance and State Control, The Total Information Awareness Project. Palgrave Macmillan.

 

\    Hansard 15 May 2018.

 

\    *Answer to MP K.Ramano who queried on the monopoly situation in surveillance of  MT and Huawei, Hansard 15 May 2018.

\    Neil M. Richards. The Dangers of Surveillance. Harvard Law Review. 2013