The Government is under pressure following the emergence of the Public Services Card debacle, with the data protection commissioner ruling that the state had illegally gathered, and held, data on citizens. Costs incurred in the scheme will run to about the equivalent of a large euromillions win – all for nothing.
It is very likely that the Government, having been ordered to destroy the data it has gathered on citizens, will be forced to comply, resulting in the total failure of the scheme.
However, the Public Services Card is not the only project the Government is deploying in a bid to gather data on citizens.
New “smart” CCTV cameras schemes, which have the potential for facial recognition have already been introduced in cities such as Limerick and Duleek in Meath. 14 towns in Limerick are set to introduce 44 smart CCTV cameras which will be linked with data from environmental footfall sensors as well as number plate recognition.
As a result of this, the Data Protection Commissioner has stated her intention to appoint a special investigation unit, later this year, to conduct a comprehensive nationwide investigation into such CCTV schemes.
Under section 4.11 of the Dept of Justice and Equality Code of Practice the use of automatic facial recognition technology is prohibited, in light of data protection requirements. It also contravenes Garda Síochána policy on CCTV which prohibits facial recognition technologies.
So, what is “smart” CCTV?
Well, essentially, it is CCTV that is linked to a computer programme, which gathers data and uses it, in theory, to predict problems. Pioneered by China, which will soon have one CCTV camera for every two citizens, it is capable of recognising your face, and even identifying you by the way you walk.
It is capable of identifying and flagging car number plates, for example. It has the capability identify patterns in behaviour – so that if, for example, you drive the same route to work every single day and do not take that route on a Thursday, it can flag this as an anomaly. In other words, without ever asking you, the state can be reasonably certain that you are sick, or not at work that day.
This level of data gathering on citizens, made possible by technology, is unprecedented, and tests the boundaries of what we consider to be acceptable. And of course, this being Ireland, there is little to no public debate about it, even as the technology is being rolled out.
The Irish Times mentioned the plan in 2017, noting ominously that:
Indeed, the Duleek scheme is significantly more invasive than the Royston case – by recording video of all individuals, not merely car numberplates, and by using cameras which can be directed to target individuals. Experience elsewhere is that manually controlled security cameras have often been used for voyeurism, following attractive women and peeping in windows, and this problem is compounded by the fact that Irish law does not currently have a criminal offence to prosecute this type of abuse.
In China, where civil liberties are no obstacle to the introduction of a surveillance state, the “smart” CCTV project has gotten to the point where in some cities, when you get on a bus, the cameras recognise your face and automatically deduct the fare from your bank account.
Surveillance on this scale has never been tried in Ireland before, and most citizens probably do not consider that it is even possible.
But it is being deployed, right now, in towns across Ireland, and gathering data and information on individual citizens in ways that most of them do understand.
This will, before long, become a major issue for Irish society to confront. And with the costs of the scheme constantly rising, it may be that ultimately, the Government have found another way to waste your money on something that is ultimately declared illegal.