The Skynet Project, China’s national surveillance system, has deployed more than 170 million cameras in public spaces across the country, covering 1.4 billion people (1). It can monitor and distinguish vehicles and pedestrians at exact time. On the screen of the control panel, relevant information is marked next to the monitored target. The Skynet is playing a more and more important role in helping the police to safeguard the public area. However, the public is now showing special concern on the infringement of personal privacy.
A Brighter Future
One of BBC reporters John Sudworth has undergone a test on the performance of Skynet. He disguised himself as a criminal amid a street crowd. It took the police just seven minutes to locate and arrest him using its network of CCTV cameras and facial recognition technology (2). This explains how efficient the Skynet was in assisting the police. The criminals can be accurately identified in prompt response. In view of Utilitarianism which favours the action that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number, Skynet has made its path to stabilise the society. A more recent stream of research data reveals that the capital felony rate in 2019 has decreased by 42.7% (3) ever since Skynet system was implemented. If you look far into the media to see how the whole society is benefited from prevention of murder, robbery, rape and some other crimes, you will rest assured that the public safety is thus guaranteed, the government may gain more trust, respect and popular support so as to devote public efforts to boost the economy. As a result, the citizens will enjoy a safer civil environment.
The system of course brings about more benefits to the majority as far as emergency service is concerned. Skynet is used for replacing the human search work and immediate reaction to the accident at a blink of eye. Once an accident occurs and requires rescues, such as fire, people missing or traffic accidents, it can quickly determine the location and save much precious time get onto the site to save. Therefore, it is evident that the system generates more pleasure in the case of emergency. It also agrees with the Equality postulate as part of the Kantian theory, by giving everyone equality to be saved. The system will not be affected by gender, race or wealth what so ever. It only focuses on whether people are encountering a life-threatening dilemma and how to offer them help.
Skynet has cast light on a modern society model in future, which is related to the personal credits. In the coming years, everyone will have his own credit scores. Should anyone violate certain rules or do anything against law, his credit score will be deducted accordingly by “Skynet”. For those with dismally low credit scores, he will be banned from participating in certain activities and be under scrutiny. What’s more, people are informed of what are the good behaviors that can add to their credits. This transparency of information creates better relationship between people and government, which totally conforms to Care Ethics. In this way, we can not only reduce the occurrence of criminal accidents, but also cultivate and improve citizens’ awareness of laws and regulations.
It is disturbing to learn that a vast 1.4 billion people are under the eye of government without consent. The key issue is forfeiting the right of privacy. As proposed by computer ethicist Johnson (4), privacy belongs to autonomy, a part of human’s intrinsic values. The sacrifice of privacy, in this case billions of ID and daily digital footprints, is intolerable. Hacking opens doors to horrible threat to public security. And what’s more, people are deprived of their right to make their own choices. The Reciprocity principle as part of the Kant’s Theory implies that people should be treated as ends, rather than means. The dogmatic implementation without revealing sufficient information of the system nor requesting people’s permission indicates that people are merely the means of the government and have no moral autonomy in making their choices, even if the system is in the name of ‘safety’. With all the sensitive data being extracted, people may live under 24-hour scrutiny and feel breathless out of panic.
Another privacy issue worth emphasizing is the further oppressing of minority group, like LGBT community in China. Young people are increasingly involved in such campaigns, but the major public voice is still against those activities. Traditional customs and public opinions are still impeding young generation on their path for individual freedom and it could be worse when they are monitored by Skynet. They don’t even have the private room to be who they truly are, so how can they stand out fighting for their rights? This is against the Freedom Principle, which states that people have every right to chase their own pleasure as long as they do not hinder the pleasure of others. LGBT is not the only case that is opposed by authority. Would you live in a society where the conservatives use technology to hinder such movements? It could be a giant leap backward.
The technology could give rise to the centralization of authority. Similar technology was first used in US. As a technical supervisor in CIA, Snowden was in charge of a secret project supervising citizens. Then he exposed all the threatening secrets he obtained during his monitor to public, acclaiming that the US government had been attacking other countries’ network in the past decade, stealing confidential information of military and economy (5–6). The leakage of trade secrets could lead to unfair competition. It was such a bomb that aroused people’s profound consideration on the misuse of cameras. The technology would go against Utilitarianism since more benefits belong to the smaller number of authorities, who could utilize the system to achieve political outcomes and ruling the majority of people.
Technology is always a double-edged sword. It remains debatable in Utilitarianism, that whether having lower crimes but much less privacy, is more of a pleasure, than having higher social instability but more privacy. Do we need to sacrifice all our privacy in order to bring the minor criminals to justice?
The Initial Decision
We are for this technology.
- Jacobs, H., (2018). China’s ‘Big Brother’ surveillance technology isn’t nearly as all-seeing as the government wants you to think [Online]. Business Insider. [Viewed 19 March 2019]. Available from: https://www.businessinsider.com/china-facial-recognition-limitations-2018-7?r=US&IR=T
- BBC News., (2017). China: “the world’s biggest camera surveillance network” [Online]. YouTube. [Viewed 19 March 2019]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNf4-d6fDoY
- Max Roser, (2018), In Our World Data [Online], “Homicides”, [Viewed 20 March 2019]. Available from: https://ourworldindata.org/homicides
- Johnson, D., (2001). Computer Ethics. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.
- MacAskill, E. and Hern, A., (2018). Edward Snowden: ‘The people are still powerless, but now they’re aware’ [Online]. The Guardian. [Viewed 19 March 2019]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jun/04/edward-snowden-people-still-powerless-but-aware
- Courage Snowden., (no date). Political Interference [Online]. The Courage Foundation. [Viewed 19 March 2019]. Available from: https://edwardsnowden.com/zh/political-interference/