It is all quiet on a mid-morning weekday at the CCTV monitoring centre of Southwark Council, in London, when I pay a visit.
Dozens of monitors display largely mundane activities – people cycling in a park, waiting for buses, coming in and out of shops.
The manager here is Sarah Pope, and there is no doubt that she is fiercely proud of her job. What gives her a real sense of satisfaction is “getting the first glimpse of a suspect… which can then guide the police investigation in the right direction,” she says.
Southwark shows how CCTV cameras – that fully adhere to the UK code of conduct – are used to help catch criminals and keep people safe. However, such surveillance systems do have their critics around the world – people who complain about a loss of privacy and an infringement of civil liberties.
Manufacturing of CCTV cameras and facial recognition technologies is a booming industry, feeding a seemingly insatiable appetite. In the UK alone, there is one CCTV camera for every 11 people.
All countries with a population of at least 250,000 are using some form of AI surveillance systems to monitor their citizens, says Steven Feldstein from the US think tank, Carnegie. And it is China that dominates this market – accounting for 45% of the sector’s global revenue.
Chinese firms like Hikvision might not be a household name, but their products may well be installed on a street near you.
“Some autocratic governments – for example, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia – are exploiting AI technology for mass surveillance purposes,” Mr Feldstein writes in a paper for Carnegie.
“Other governments with dismal human rights records are exploiting AI surveillance in more limited ways to reinforce repression. Yet all political contexts run the risk of unlawfully exploiting AI surveillance technology to obtain certain political objectives,”
One place that offers an interesting insight into how China has rapidly become a surveillance superpower is Ecuador. The South American country bought an entire national video surveillance system from China, including 4,300 cameras.
“Of course, a country like Ecuador wouldn’t necessarily have the money to pay for a system like this,” says journalist Melissa Chan, who reported from Ecuador, and specialises in China’s international influence. She used to report from China but was kicked out of the country several years ago without an explanation.
“The Chinese came with a Chinese bank ready to give them a loan. That really helps pave the way. My understanding is that Ecuador had promised oil against those loans if they couldn’t pay them back.” She says a military attaché in the Chinese embassy in Quito was involved.
One way of looking at the issue is not simply to focus on the surveillance technology, but “the export of authoritarianism”, she says, adding that “some would argue that the Chinese are far less discriminating in terms of which governments they’re willing to work with”
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Original article found here