Glasgow City Council is spending £24 million on surveillance technology from NICE Systems, a company with links to the Israeli military.
The purpose is to create a technologically enhanced “smart city”. Residents will be able to download a variety of apps – a number are already available – and use them to check energy efficiency, find cycling routes, report potholes and so on.
This sounds great: Glasgow is a fantastic city with some serious social problems, and data can be used to make intelligent planning decisions. But do we trust the people in power?
While there’s plenty of glossy PR for Future Cities, the council has been remarkably reticent about its relationship with an Israeli security company, and about the fact that the project is being delivered in partnership with deeply unpopular outsourcing company Serco.
Whether or not smart cities are a good idea depends entirely on whose interests they serve. Is this data being generated to serve the needs of Glasgow residents, and make their experience of the city more rewarding? Or will it be used to enhance social control?
I am genuinely not sure.
You can find out more about the council’s spin on the project website, Open Glasgow. It looks great: open data to enhance residents’ lives. Create your own walking tour of the city and share with others. Check weather – taps oan or aff? – and traffic updates.
What the council isn’t telling you is that as part of the Future Cities project, they have purchased “enhanced surveillance” equipment from NICE Systems, an Israeli company of surveillance and security specialists with links to the Israeli military. NICE is actively promoted by the Israeli government, and uses technology developed during the occupation of Palestine.
Essentially what the city is doing is aggregating data. Information from existing CCTV and traffic cameras will be aggregated, and a range of new cameras will be installed. Sensors have also been installed around the city, to monitor light, energy use, pollution and who knows what else. Council tax records, pedestrian footfall and other data will be collated.
The software can be programmed to monitor the city automatically, and alert human operators if “unusual” activity is detected.
It isn’t clear quite how much of NICE technology the council will use, but the technology is able to track IP addresses, mobile phone records, mobile location data and more, and to be able to find people in the city using facial recognition technology, based on an uploaded photograph.
Frankly, this is a level of surveillance I am not comfortable with. I understand that the city needs to monitor and respond to incidents, but I am not happy with the idea of paranoid robots keeping an eye on us.
I am also not comfortable that the council has developed a partnership with an Israeli company born in the 8200 signal intelligence unit of the Israel Defense Force, with expertise gained in an illegal occupation. I’d like my council to join the campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, instead of giving public money to a military spin off.
NICE boasts that it is able to help authorities capture and store the billions of calls, emails, messages and social media posts that people generate each day, and analyze them in real time to detect threats.
The Snowden revelations have shown us the extent to which our governments in the Five Eyes alliance are spying on us. The last thing I want is for the council to spy on me too.
Also, to what extent is the data just a distraction from the real issues the city faces? As a cyclist, I am constantly reminded of the city’s terrible cycling infrastructure. Having an app that confirms that there are no cycle routes doesn’t add to my experience in any way.
I am sure other users of the city’s infrastructure will have a similar view: it’s no good knowing that pollution in Hope Street is at illegal and dangerous levels, or that there are potholes at Eglinton Toll. We want these things fixed!
The £24 million would be better spent improving council services in a city with some very high poverty rates, instead of providing a technological smokescreen for a deeply sinister surveillance programme.
Is @GlasgowCC’s @OpenGlasgow a technological smokescreen for a sinister surveillance programme? #BDS
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