“The End of Consent”: In Conversation with Jake Scott on Surveillance Technology, Part II
Georgia: Do you think that even though I think partially during the pandemic that did allow people in certain professions who had already, you know, a comfortable lifestyle and their families and staff and other, the homes that did allow them a bit more freedom? I think if they were in that circumstance already, do you think that maybe we could be going forward into a situation where the workplace actually sorts of invades the home and by default, maybe things like facial recognition, technology and other sort of ways of monitoring people could get, you know, get there, hold on the home more than that already.
Jake: I’ve thought about it. A lot. My concern with working from home is that there is a fundamental distinction between private and, should we say “employee life” that is not necessarily eroded but blurred at the very least. And I’ll give you an example. When it comes to teaching, we have taught a lot online with the university for the last 18 months and still using a mixed delivery system.
I’ll be interested to see how this new, variant probably shifts us back to online teaching, but that’s beside the point really? We said to students, you don’t have to have your camera on from memory. However, we had to have our cameras on now. I’m very lucky. I live in a nice area. There’s two of us in a three-bedroom house. The third room was converted into an office. I have the privacy, but if you ever ring a government service for instance, and request to speak to someone directly, and this is, you know, this is like a service that’s on gov.uk, as opposed to at the NHS or something like that.
They say now in their recorded, responses, something like “Our employees are working from home. You may hear background noise, but every step has been taken to secure your privacy.” Now you don’t know if that’s actually true, right? Like you don’t because at the start with the whole track and trace thing, the whole idea of the people who worked for track and trace was that all you needed was a mobile phone and a laptop, because then you could sit at home. If your laptop told you, you had to contact someone to contact them to track and trace you, ring them up.
You could have someone sit in that room. And, you know, you could be saying, is this so-and-so, is this Jake Scott? And then straight away that person who sat in the room with you knows Jake Scott, Scott has coronavirus. Now this isn’t necessarily to do with FRT, but in terms of employment, I can very easily see employers saying to employees, “You have to have your camera on.”
Now, how does that affect someone who lives in say a small flat in London? They’re essentially being forced to show that bedroom or their living room, really the private sphere is it should be that private. You know, if, if, if I had, if I had my ideal world, I’d, I’d make it so that even employees didn’t even need to ask you for your private, private address like you should be able to give it to them, but you should be able to refuse as well for the simple fact that you should not have the capacity for someone to just show up at your door, with the exception of the police, but even then, so the issue that I see with it is that it’s very easy for employers to automate observing their employees.
And you can see this kind of dystopian world in which you ping your phone or laptop that says you’ve been away from your screen for three minutes “please return to the screen” or something like that.
Georgia: I’m sure we’ve all seen the Black Mirror episode that essentially recreates China’s social credit system. It’s a world where everyone has really big, rigid smiles on all the time, because they’re terrified of being seen to be upset. Do you think this could start to make waves through social media or personal technology such as face ID that is already on iPhones.
Jake: Well, the issue there is that that requires explicit consent. And unless an employee is given the possibility to withdraw their consent, then at the end of the day the consent isn’t real. So the non-philosophical terminology or the philosophical terminology aside, the point is if, unless the employee has the option to say no, then it is a form of tyranny, and it might be tyranny by business, but it’s still a tyranny. Doesn’t have to just be from the government.
Georgia: I know people who have work laptops on which their employers have software that they can see everything they do on it.
Jake: That’s really weird because obviously when I’m working and maybe a WhatsApp message or a Signal message comes up, my employer could see that.
Georgia: Exactly, also let’s say you have been working for four hours straight and you want to take a quick break and reply to a Tweet, which is not a big deal, are you going to get into trouble for that?
Jake: Who knows, and yes, this is a bad situation for work ethic and morale because people feel like they can be constantly watched- because they are.
I’ve also heard that Windows 11 will only work if you have a webcam plugged in and the issue with webcams that a lot of people don’t know, is that always-on, you know, even if you’ve turned off they can watch you.
Georgia: Interesting, I didn’t know that. One thing I have noticed is that TikTok in particular- which is no surprise given it’s links to the Chinese state- 100% listens to what you say and tracks what you do on other apps and devices. There have even been times when I have thought of something and something related to it has appeared on TikTok, say the day after.
Jake: Oh, algorithms are obviously the big thing in social media and they’re so good because they can, as you say map a thought process. So it might even feel like you think of something, but at the end of the day, your brain is essentially a computer. Your brain follows certain algorithms and these are our rhythms are built to reflect that. So it might be that you watched a video two or three days ago and every two or three days that comes back into your mind or like, that’s how your brain remembers things.
When I go on websites and they ask me to accept cookies. I always try and find the reject option because I just hate the idea that I’m tacitly or explicitly giving them consent.
I have even had companies call me up to ask things about people they have identified as my family members because a site has sold my data to them. Accidental leaks are one thing, but the fact that this kind of data can be sold off is quite something.
Jake Scott is a postgraduate student in political philosophy at the University of Birmingham, and Chair of The Mallard magazine.
My short film: NOTHING TO HIDE, NOTHING TO FEAR I The Future of Facial Recognition Technology, produced as part of the Young Voices tech policy fellowship can be viewed on YouTube now: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=feJeGNJiGDc&ab_channel=GeorgiaL.Gilholy