Think, for a moment, about the 2002 Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise science fiction epic “Minority Report.” For those unfamiliar with that film, it’s about a time in the not-too-distant future in which people are being arrested for crimes that they will one day commit, but have not actually done so yet. During one of the most fascinating scenes in the film, Tom Cruise’s character walks through a shopping mall in an attempt to covertly find one of his key suspects in a crime that he’s being framed for. While he’s trying to keep a low profile, he’s also scanned by some of the facial recognition machines in the mall — all so that stores can better target their advertising to him, but blowing his cover in the process.
Surveillance Camera

In 2002, that scene seemed like something out of pure science fiction. Now, recent events at the Trafford Centre shopping mall prove that it has very much become scientific fact. Recently, the mall came under fire when it was revealed that it had been using facial recognition software to scan visitors for wanted criminals and missing persons. Not only was the program launched without the knowledge of the public, but it had actually gone on for over six months before it was detected and ultimately halted by the Surveillance Camera Commissioner. Recently, the Manchester Evening News posed a simple question to their readers: “How do you feel about all of this?” Their answers were fascinating to say the least.

 

The Situation at the Trafford Centre: Breaking Things Down

According to a rudimentary poll conducted by the Manchester Evening News, fully 63 percent of people actually thought that this type of automatic facial recognition was a good idea. Only 37 percent disagreed, many of whom cited a concern for their own privacy and sense of safety.

The shocking thing is that so many people seemed to be on board with a topic that was so controversial to begin with. What was less-than-shocking were the justifications that many supporters used. Responses ran the gamut, but a lot of them amounted to, “I don’t break the law, so I have nothing to hide. I don’t understand why people would be concerned unless they’re doing something they’re not supposed to be.”
From a certain angle, this perspective makes a degree of sense. There are two key problems with it, however.

First, your right to privacy doesn’t depend on whether or not you’re breaking the law. Just because you’re a law-abiding citizen doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to be concerned about some large and ominous organization tracking your every move. Secondly, it’s alarmingly short-sighted. Yes, today the Trafford Centre is only using this automatic facial recognition software to look for criminals and missing persons. But how hard would it be for them to pivot into something decidedly more nefarious in the future?

That “slippery slope” is the thing that a lot of privacy advocates have been warning us about for years, and it seems that not enough people have been really paying attention. Indeed, it’s precisely the type of ethical conundrum that Philip K. Dick became famous for writing about — up to and including the aforementioned “Minority Report.”

One person who responded on Facebook, a man from the UK named Peter Dolman, said it best when he said, “It’s not about having something to hide. It’s about civil liberties and the right to go about your business without undue surveillance.” If a police officer walked up to you and asked to see the total contents of your smartphone’s hard drive, would you let them just because you’ve “done nothing wrong?” If a FRIEND asked to go through the private photos on your phone for almost no reason at all, would you let them? Probably not.

So why should that stance be any different for anyone else, let alone a major organization like the Trafford Centre? At this point, the debate about our privacy in the digital era will rage on — and it’s one that we’ll all be paying close attention to for years to come.