‘Minority Report’ is already here – now what do we do?

It is high time to openly discuss the use of omni-surveillance systems in the Western world.

CCTV security camera (photo credit: INGIMAGE / ASAP)
CCTV security camera
(photo credit: INGIMAGE / ASAP)
It has recently been revealed that China has created digital “thought police” to shackle its Uyghur Muslim minority. By monitoring the Uyghurs at all times, the Chinese government ensures that they cannot rebel against the current regime – or even express discontent in any meaningful way. Such digital surveillance is spreading around to many other totalitarian regimes. Domestic stability in these nations is increasingly safeguarded by “omni-present” surveillance, as well as Minority Report-like systems for predicting crime and violence. These systems rely on a sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) that cross-links information obtained in real time from social media and millions of cameras and other sensing devices. Under such constant surveillance, it becomes practically impossible to conduct criminal acts without being caught before, during or after the act.
While the use of monitoring technologies in this way was always seen as a nightmare scenario for democracy, let us not be naïve: governments worldwide, including the United States, are using such methods – whether by relying on data obtained from cameras or from social media networks.
Increasingly it seems that there is no longer any question about whether we should even use such systems for omni-present surveillance.
In fact, we should all be thankful that governments are using such powerful tools to protect the public from terrorists and criminals.
The real question is how can we make the most of such systems, while minimizing their potential for abuse by governments to stifle dissent, thus perverting the pillars upon which democracy is built.
We suggest that omni-present surveillance – with information from sensors in the public sphere as well as social media – should be used widely and openly in the Western world as well, but in a way that will create “blind surveillance.” Sophisticated AI systems should crunch the information to reach conclusions and share them with the police.
Such systems would preserve citizens’ privacy as much as possible, while still providing a way for law enforcers to maintain order and provide justice.
Such a system could, for instance, provide a list of all the locations a person has been visiting over the last year – but only when allowed to under a court order. It could direct law enforcers to a person who was just estranged from his wife and visited three different stores to buy a rope, a knife and a large sack – and share with them just the evidence needed to identify the potential murderer even before he conducted the crime.
While omni-present monitoring can serve as a powerful way to stifle dissent, we believe it is a valuable tool that needs to be (and will be) used for public protection. By turning surveillance into “blind surveillance,” its use can be regulated stringently. However, that means that watchdog organizations and the public at large need to be aware of the rule set according which such blind surveillance works, and take part in the discussion around it.
It is high time to openly discuss the use of omni-surveillance systems in the Western world, to better understand their benefits and threats to democracy, and to find ways to utilize them for the best outcome possible – and not just for the ruling class.
Dr. Roey Tzezana is a researcher at Blavatnik Interdisciplinary Center for Cyber Research at Tel Aviv University, and is affiliated with HCRI – Humanity Centered Robotic Initiative – at Brown University. He’s currently studying the future of the Internet of things, cyber-security, crime and terrorism.Dr. Tamir Libel is a security studies scholar who is based in Germany. He was until recently a Beatriu de Pinos Research Fellow at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI). His Twitter is @drtamirlibel.