Watched democracies

Il·lustració d'una pistola que enlloc de canó per les bales té un objectiu de càmara de vigilància

In most cities there are hardly any spaces left for public cohabitation: by neglecting parks and common areas, by closing cultural spaces, by cutting budgets for extracurricular activities and recreation, familiarity with others was lost and they were given the blame for all evils. A culture of mistrust, abuse and violence has spread. The public space has been privatised and enclosed with fences and cameras.

The polarisation, division, or distance everyone talks about so much today and for which all sectors blame the social networks, was present in cities before these networks existed. Reduction of space, with the forced austerity that put an end to funding for parks and public spaces. Reduction of time, because while working hours became more intense, the distances from work to home got longer.

Over the last two decades, the countries we now see most polarised have faced intense processes of urban segregation, of mass migration from rural to urban areas, an increase in violence, new inhabitants who come from other places, who are different. There has not been enough time or the right conditions to get to know each other, to prepare the community for these changes, to create suitable conditions for cohabitation, giving communities a chance to adapt to the new social and intercultural dynamics.

The new demographics have coincided with the imposed austerity that many local governments have experienced, public space has been privatised and enclosed with fences and cameras. There is no time left, the precarisation of the middle and lower classes created a trend in which families spend less and less time together, do not know their neighbours and very often are afraid of them as they have no shared codes. Societies of children shut up at home, of children who grow up alone, interacting with the screen of a television, a telephone or a computer; of parents who do not let them out to play, who watch over them remotely, all the time.

In most cities there are hardly any spaces left for public cohabitation: by neglecting parks and common areas, by closing cultural spaces, by cutting budgets for extracurricular activities and recreation, familiarity with others was lost and those others were given the blame for all evils. A culture of mistrust, of abuse and violence spread rapidly through many spaces, at the same time as a digitalisation took place that supposedly brought us together and connected us.

The digitalisation of urban spaces is a mixture of citizens trapped by what happens on the networks of their telephones and cameras, sensors, applications that capture their data every day without their noticing. The presence of the municipalities and their digital contribution are reduced to watching over the other everywhere. There is no digital sphere in the city today involving progress in rights, real empowerment for citizens.

An oasis of peace for the 1%

The technological utopia of more participative and inclusive cities with the help of technology comes to pieces when these technologies are deployed for exactly the opposite reason. To create protected, gentrified spaces. Tomorrow’s encircled cities do not necessarily need walls. We shall bear the shackles or limits invisibly. Faced with the inability to eradicate the prevalent poverty and inequality, the middle classes in the emerging economies are simply making them invisible. And technology is helping them.

The city of the future I see in promotional videos, with massive systems for surveillance and control of the masses, seems sunk in a permanent state of normality. This is a city without traffic and without protests, without visible disasters, without spontaneous mobilisations, without surprises. Spontaneous events, like system errors, are suppressed before they happen. Movement, analysis, decisions, take place in a control room that looks like that of a spaceship, where experts work in real time, watching us all while we are unable to see them. The public has no access to these systems; on the contrary, they are closed systems that are difficult to audit, where actions are dictated by a system designed somewhere else and which tries to pretend it is not political.

Technology is political

In these cities everything is controlled by invisible technology, a barely noticeable part of everyday life: those surveillance cameras you could see at the corner have been replaced by integrated constant monitoring systems built into the landscape. They are cities of sensors that collect our data all day long, in which every movement is recorded and stored, where decisions are automated and dehumanised, monetised to optimise consumption, to predict behaviour, to control the people. And where the benefits of not knowing who decides and why they take them is what maintains this vision.

In 2018, more than 130 million sophisticated surveillance cameras were exported and installed in the world. A handful of companies have developed the software, the hardware and the skills, all concentrated in countries that can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The video surveillance market alone will reach $43.8 million by 2025, fed by the already meagre public funds of countries like ours.

Despite the hype that keeps feeding our imagination with accounts of the camera that detects bag snatchers, the facts are radically different; these are matrices that combine a lot of data in real time. The vision of cities of the future promoted by a small group of technological conglomerates is one in which quality of life is directly proportional to the predictability and uniformity of their inhabitants and clashes with the fight for diversity of peoples and behaviours. To reach this situation, more –much more– than privacy is sacrificed, and the security of these conglomerates will be mortgaged in the closed control room. This sacrifices the most immediate form of democracy we have: our right to protest freely and anonymously in the town square.

Local surveillance systems are spreading rapidly through Latin America, much sooner and much faster than suitable rules to regulate privacy and personal data; without democratic mechanisms, community or neighbourhood consultations to determine their need or suitability. These are sophisticated, short-lived systems that require costly upgrades and maintenance and that report vague profits. In Tegucigalpa (Honduras), for example, the city was unable to continue with the surveillance system for lack of funds to maintain the cameras.

The contracts that are signed tie the hands of more than one public institution, thereby jeopardising the future of the municipal budget, and what is more with a coordinated marketing and data machine without solid backing to verify its efficacy.

The authorities claim that the cameras, the scenario modelling and the mass surveillance will eliminate the problem of security, and they give introducing all this priority over other public policies intended to attack extreme hardship and inequality in access to basic services and to rescue public space. Studies ensuring the effectiveness of surveillance as a measure to reduce crime are incomplete; they fail to separate the technological measure from other internal or external local factors and can not be applied to different contexts.

The cities of the future promoted by the conglomerates who benefit from these technologies are such that events can be anticipated, preventive decisions can be made on crowd control, protests can be blocked, mobilisations for more and better rights can be predicted. Discrimination by algorithm. Exclusion by patterns of behaviour.

Il·lustració de la pantalla d'un mòbil. Es veuen unes mans darrere d'uns barrots © Albert Tercero

Digital cities or watched cities

Do we want a future without surveillance? A future in which diversity rather than uniformity in behaviour is the norm? Then let’s start by eradicating the culture of security guards (now invisible ones) from the neighbourhood and the city. Let’s start taking part in all the open spaces, and if there aren’t any let’s open them before the last bastion of democracy is no more than a memory erased by someone behind a monitor. These are three of the steps we can all take:

1. Prevent the introduction of surveillance. If large-scale surveillance is still a topic being explored as a security measure, it is important to rally the neighbourhood against it, first of all asking what municipal assets or services will be sacrificed in order to provide it and what impact this prioritisation will have on the life of the neighbourhood and the community. Furthermore, it is important to ask about the long-term sustainability and viability of these projects and the conditions under which the municipal government is purchasing them. It is important to quantify what is being sacrificed by investing in surveillance, for example by indicating how many care programmes for children and young people at risk could be obtained for the same price, providing all-round, long-term solutions. Once the mass surveillance system has been installed, privacy and intimacy are only for those who can pay.

2. Question the mass surveillance installed and its cost. Decisions intended to improve security and life quality in neighbourhoods and cities must be participative and the benefits of installing continuous mass surveillance mechanisms in the public space must be weighed against analogous social alternatives. Surveillance with the use of technology is expensive, and for each camera installed there are not only fixed costs of maintenance and upgrades, but public expenditure on community programmes is also sacrificed. Furthermore, the immense majority of technology providers are foreign. Closed technology  that works mainly with proprietary software make an effective city audit impossible. Contracts with providers of cameras and services are generally million-euro agreements that are binding beyond the term of office of the government signing them, without taking into account the facts of the municipality.

3. Connecting with other cities and rebel collectives. To break free from surveillance and other repressive and authoritarian measures that follow on from it, we must immediately activate all the mechanisms the law allows for auditing the way mass surveillance systems operate in our cities. And we must do so collectively, in coordination with other cities affected by this problem. Just as there is a Smart Cities Network, we must form our own Digital Cities Network in which surveillance is rejected and in which the way towards safe cities is not with cameras but via participative democracy framed in the respect for human rights and diversity and centred on collective solutions. Then, we can simultaneously activate collaborative mechanisms to prevent their spread. Requesting access to public information detailing costs. Demanding studies of the results. Taking serious legal action before possible legal problems over the cameras for discriminatory policies. Demanding that the data protection authority, if there is one –and the human rights authority otherwise–, carry out viability studies to weigh up the impact on individual guarantees before the so-called surveillance systems are installed.

The digital layer must and can be much more than a system of cameras and efficiency and this sphere is precisely the one we must demand, occupy, take advantage of. Tools for speaking, participating, interacting and co-creating with other people.

This is where democracy begins and ends. Exercising it.

Recommended publications

  • Women, Whistleblowing, WikiLeaksOR Books, 2017

From the issue

Revista Barcelona Metròpolis 110 - Ciutat digital

N110 - Jan 19 Index