Electronic Eyes and Ethics

By Carl Hausman

Imagine some everyday events in this possible future world:

On your way to work you stop to visit your elderly father, who has developed dementia and has wandered off in the past. You activate a tracking device that will monitor his movements and alert you if he leaves a predetermined area.

Next on your itinerary is the bus stop, where you drop off your daughter. Her student ID card is scanned to ensure that she will be tracked getting on and off the bus and entering the school building.

Shopping is next on the schedule. You visit your favorite clothing store, where cameras mounted in the ceiling analyze your facial features, call up records of past purchases based on the identification, and activates a video placard displaying an ad for a product a computer program thinks you are likely to buy.

As the day winds down, you stop in at your favorite restaurant. You strike up a conversation with an attractive person at the bar — and utilizing the camera in a computer shaped into a pair of eyeglasses you use a facial-recognition program to assess that person’s identity and run a database search on all information available on that person; you view the results on a screen mounted an inch from your eye.

While the last two scenarios above are at the edge of feasibility — perhaps months away — the first two are present reality. In the U.K, many localities offer handheld or wearable tracking devices for the elderly. Recently a local police force there offered to pay for the devices, saying they would save thousands in funds needed for police searches.

An in Texas, a San Antonio school district has already implemented tracking devices to make sure students are on board their buses and within school grounds during the school day.

As for the other scenarios: Facial recognition technology is not widely used in stores, but it is in beta. A Denver company currently markets biometric technology that determines the sex of a customer, and has sold the devices to stores and casinos. Casinos in western Canada, according to a report from the Denver Post, are now using the systems to properly set the ambience of various parts of the casino floor for men and women.

Google Glass is also in the development phase, but the wearable computer is equipped with a camera and it’s not such a stretch to imagine that the device could eventually be adapted for facial-recognition technology.

The ability to physically track people has increased exponentially in a decade. The technology has advanced like a gazelle, but the law, which typically has great difficulty catching up to technology, has lumbered like an elephant.

As we have regularly reported in these pages, laws are inconsistent or non-existent for applications of such technologies as drone surveillance from aircraft, or availability of travel records recorded by tracking devices inside cars (for collecting tolls or for monitoring driving habits).

As such, much of the way we sort this emerging problem out will be based on ethics, and what laws that do emerge will likely be based on the ethical consensus we reach and, of course, reactive outrage at those who flagrantly abuse the technology.

The ethical approaches are complex because, as Dr. Rushworth Kidder pointed out in many of his writings, true ethical dilemmas are often choices between alternatives that each present a “good” or a “right” aspect.

One “right” is fairly obvious in monitoring dementia patients: Their safety is undoubtedly enhanced. But there are alternative objections that take into account patient dignity and quality of care, also prima-facie “rights.” Some critics want limits on such devices, saying they should not be used without proper informed consent (prompting some agencies to offer the devices as early in the process of the dementia’s path as possible) or simply to save money. Others worry that the devices could result in a lack of human contact, and that computer chips could be improperly substituted for caregivers.

Similar concerns have been voiced over the ethics of physically tracking students through computer chips implanted in their ID cards. Some question whether enhanced safety is worth, for example, conditioning youngsters to being electronically surveilled.

Is it ethical to use identification technologies to sell products? We all value, to differing extents, our privacy. On the other hand, we are often willing to trade that privacy for convenience, including when shopping. While it’s a little unsettling to me to have my reading habits monitored by Amazon and my viewing routine scrutinized by Netflix, I do enjoy the endproduct: a steady flow of content suited to my tastes. It’s not such a stretch to think I might sanction a computer recognizing me if it speeded and enhanced my experience in a clothing store.

And what of Google Glass? It doesn’t take much reflection to appreciate how primitive life seemed without a smartphone: No text messages, no always-available camera, no pocket-size navigation system. But privacy concerns remain, and while ubiquitous nature of cameras has, perhaps, not proved to be the problem we once anticipated it would be, the possibility of intrusive and secretive photography will certainly be augmented when a camera doesn’t have be be hand-held and pointed.

One of our top stories in this week’s news section highlights a lucid assessment of the ethical right-versus-right dilemma involving surveillance. Boston’s police commissioner Edward Davis, noting that surveillance cameras had been invaluable in capturing suspects in the Boston Marathon Bombings, warned against abuse that would result in a “police state” environment, “We do not, and cannot, live in a protective enclosure because of the actions of extremists who seek to disrupt our way of life.”

What’s your view? Where, in your opinion, do we cross an ethical line when we employ surveillance and tracking devices? Enter your thoughts in the box below.


Author: admin

Carl Hausman is Professor of Journalism at Rowan University, the author of several books about media, and a commentator about the role of media and ethics in civic life.

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