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Digital Surveillance and Racial Profiling Bias

It took 12000 years to humanity to reach 1 billion people on earth. Then, it took 130 years to reach 2 Billion. Unexpectedly, it only takes about 12 years to produce 1 billion additional humans. How do we manage so many people on the planet, and how do we incorporate technology in the mix?

Border control, CCTV footage and the Internet on top of all are making it easier than ever to carry surveillance through a combination of personal data available to governments, companies and your hacker neighbor. Surveillance in the digital age is not a luxury anymore. It is not safe to say that surveillance has been stronger since the democratization of the Internet. But, we can postulate that it changed the tools available to carry this surveillance. Indeed, Big data is a undeniable powerful tool. The data stored is constituted of essentially personal information going from your last Amazon order to your next doctor appointment. People are not always aware of the amount of information is public regarding their private matter. The ambiguous relation of race and surveillance is a hot topic among academics.

Racial analysis: what about whiteness?

The authors of “Teach Me to Thunder: A Manual for Anti-Racism Trainers”, wrote that “whiteness is a dominant cultural space with enormous political significance, with the purpose to keep others on the margin… white people are not required to explain to others how ‘white’ culture works, because ‘white’ culture is the dominant culture that sets the norms.” The inequality coming from the common belief that we owe so much to white culture is another root of what racism looks like today in surveillance. The dominant white culture gets to define the standards by which others will be judged and it starts by the color of your skin.

What about the effects of surveillance on “unconventionally non-white” people?

After 9/11, the US required countries that did not need a visa to adopt the biometric passport identification. They wanted to have a digital print of every passport holders in order to confirm their identity physically and digitally. The European Union accepted this decision and quickly integrated it in its own regulation. The different international powers complied with the US security model without any resistance.

A number of discrimination was carried after those events at the US borders towards suspicious looking citizens with valid documentations. This is quite a set back from the UN principles of fair treatment and human rights. Within the EU, citizens are protected with a directive restricting the “special categories of data” such as ethnic background, political views, health condition, sexual orientation or religious beliefs. This protection of privacy is aimed with the purpose to limit collection of data that may be used to carry any kind of discrimination. In the US, the rights protected under the First Amendment (free speech, religion, free press, assembly, and petitioning the government) are at stake regarding privacy. Nevertheless, the only protection assured is to limit agencies to reach to individuals by the use of private data. There is no real way to prevent discrimination with the amount of information that is known by agencies or companies.

Under the radar of digital surveillance, are we all equal?

“Digital epidermalization is the exercise of power cast by the disembodied gaze of certain surveillance technologies (for example, identity card and e-passport verification machines) that can be employed to do the work of alienating the subject by producing a ‘truth’ about the body and one’s identity (or identities) despite the subject’s claims.” Simone Browne, 2010

Simone Browne showed that in practice our digital identity is not really helping to identify us. It does quite the opposite because our features and information about our appearance are not tangible proof to who we are. In reality, your appearance might be suspicious and hard to prove your digital self when you don’t match authorities expectations. Browne described how a Canadian citizen was sent back to India because the authorities at the airport judged her appearance suspicious to carry a valid Canadian passport.

Research points out the role of the strong history and culture representation of Caucasian origins as the hero and the founder fathers of democracy, which exclude the other race in a way. The rise of nationalist and extreme parties for both is another reminder of race bias and discrimination intended towards the suspicious “others” who are not white. Technology can be a wonderful tool to help humans manage humans fairly, are we ever going to head towards a more equal approach?


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