By: Kara Woods

Ever have the sense that your phone knows a little too much about you? That maybe Google Voice Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and Siri aren’t only listening for their names? I have had several conversations with friends who were amazed and a little uncomfortable with the fact that one day they were talking to their friend over lunch about Universal Studios and fuzzy socks, only to have Universal Studio tickets and fuzzy socks dominate website sidebar ads for the next week. In the United States, we all have the slightly uncomfortable sense that we’re being watched, and we might not have agreed to that. It’s only going to adverts and businesses, it isn’t hurting us, so the general feeling is that we just accept it as part of having smart devices, and try to ignore it when we can.

Our reaction changes if the government is the one holding the information that advertising companies seem to. The conversations, search histories, personal messages, and anonymous social media accounts, while relatively harmless in the hands of people trying to sell us amusement park tickets and fuzzy socks, is extremely intrusive in the hands of the government. In 2019, evidence gathered from searching messages on a cell phone is inadmissible if a warrant wasn’t obtained first.[i] The Supreme Court recognized that information as private and under the scope of the fourth amendment.[ii] The Fourth Amendment doesn’t say anything about cellphones, in fact, it only mentions persons, houses, papers, and affects, but because the goal was to keep the government out of areas that should be private, the protection has been extended. The Supreme Court indicated in Riley v. California that the mass data storage in our phones means that they are connected to our rights to privacy.[iii]

Ideas about what should be kept private from the government look different abroad, particularly in countries known for the wide use of CCTV (closed circuit television) cameras with facial recognition technology, specifically in the United Kingdom and China. The United Kingdom is struggling to create policy for the rapidly developing technology while China is using the technology to discriminate against local ethnic groups. Both these developments will have an impact on how the right to privacy is viewed throughout the world, and should be carefully monitored.

United Kingdom

             London claims the title of second most photographed city in the world, with 420,000 CCTV cameras (closed circuit television) in the city.[iv] Comparatively, Washington DC has only 30,000 CCTV cameras, and Chicago has 17,000.[v]

The surveillance has recently gone a step further and integrated facial recognition technology into many of the CCTV cameras, and 58 people have been arrested using this technology based on programmed watch lists made up of suspected criminals from the police.[vi] Facial recognition technology is currently used at large events, such as rugby matches and air shows, where mass scans of faces are used to identify people on the watch lists, and have those people subsequently arrested.[vii] A case regarding the use of facial recognition technology is working its way through the English Court system; Mr. Ed Bridges has claimed it was a violation of his privacy to have his face photographed and scanned by police software without his consent.[viii] A slightly more technological problem discovered in the facial recognition software used by the United Kingdom is that the technology is much better at recognizing differences in white male faces than any other kind, leading to more false positive identifications for minority groups and therefore more improper detentions.[ix] There is no current legislation in the United Kingdom limiting police use of facial recognition cameras, or any other use of the cameras of the United Kingdom, though many MP’s are pushing for a uniform standard of police use that aims at protecting privacy.[x]

Since the United States acknowledges a human right to privacy, to not be tracked and followed by the government in our daily lives, confirmed in the US by the Supreme Court, we should be paying attention to how the United Kingdom reacts to the changes in technology as it grows ever more invasive. By being the first western country to use facial recognition technology in policing at this scale, the United Kingdom is going to set an early standard for the use of this technology by the police. The policy constraints our allies develop will be an important protection for the human right of privacy, and might be able to give the rest of the world a human rights base as they develop and use similar technology.


             With 470,000 cameras in Beijing alone[xi], China holds the city with the most CCTV cameras and is moving forward with their facial recognition surveillance at full speed.[xii] Surveillance technology in China is anything but hidden, with cameras hanging from trees, street lights, and staircases, China wants her citizens to know that they are being watched.[xiii] In addition to the cameras watching people as they move through their lives, the Chinese government also has complete control over their citizen’s access to the internet, creating blackouts of information on the government’s call.[xiv] China is also beginning to institute ID stations, where you have to scan your ID as you pass through certain areas of many cities, creating an accurate and detailed map of where you are at all times, why you are there, and what you are doing.[xv] China is creating a set of surveillance better than imagined by the dystopia in The Hunger Games.

This surveillance is not applied equally. Unlike the United Kingdom’s watch lists, the software does more than target suspects and individuals with criminal records but is explicitly made for the identification of the Uighurs, a largely Muslim minority group, for the purposes of monitoring and controlling their movements.[xvi] Uighurs who pray in their Mosques must do so while facing several CCTV cameras programed with facial recognition, and they are subsequently sent to “re-education camps” because their worship is seen as a threat to Chinese society.[xvii] The Mosques traditionally used by the Uighur are unsurprisingly empty as a result.[xviii] Uighurs outside of the camps are specifically targeted by this surveillance technology, and have no privacy even if they are allowed to walk the city under their own free will, and haven’t for years[xix]. Many countries and human rights groups have called on China to stop their re-education camps, due to the similarity to concentration camps, but China has yet to respond.[xx]

It is also important to pay attention to reports of countries sending delegations to see China’s surveillance system during the Beijing Olympics. [xxi]  Countries similar to Ecuador that already have struggles with their democracy were reported having a delegation look at Chinese facial recognition technology and the surveillance system, and it is easy to see the power the system gives the government.[xxii] There are many obvious benefits for China to introduce this surveillance system model to other countries: less judgement from the international community, the economic boost of selling this technology, and a reaffirmation that countries with less power will continue their connections with China instead of another world power.[xxiii]

The United States has acknowledged privacy as a human right domestically. China shows the part extreme surveillance plays in not only destroying the right to privacy, but also the right to a fair trial, the right against discrimination, the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom of religion. All of these recognized rights are jeopardized as part of these violations of privacy. These fundamental rights are linked and threatened when nothing is allowed to be private to begin with. China is looking to spread their model, while western democracies are still working on a functional policy.


While the UK is working on developing sound policy for facial recognition technology, China has skipped right to using it for blatant discrimination. Keeping an eye on how other countries develop or don’t develop rights to privacy will be important for the future security of people and their basic human rights, at home and abroad. Countries and people need to pay attention to the right to privacy in connection with government surveillance or violations of privacy will become the international norm before it becomes an internationally recognized right. As citizens, look for and evaluate legislation concerning rights to privacy and prepare to draw lines where they are needed.

Until then, say hi to your advert analyst, and keep watch on the multitude of ways that the government can violate that privacy, and be ready to act in favor of protection.

[i] Riley v. California, 573 U.S. 373 (2014)

[ii] Id. at 403.

[iii] Id. at 394-98, 403.

[iv] Darrell M. West, Benefits and Best Practices of Safe City Innovation, Brookings Institute. 2017

[v] Id.

[vi]  Adam Satariano, Real-Time Surveillance Will Test the British Tolerance for Cameras, N.Y. Times. Sep. 17, 2019

[vii] Id.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id.

[x] Id.

[xi] Darrell M. West, Benefits and Best Practices of Safe City Innovation, BROOKINGS INSTITUTE. 2017

[xii] Paul Mozur, One Month, 500,000 Face Scans: How China Is Using A.I. to Profile a Minority, N.Y. Times, Apr. 14, 2019

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Id.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii]The Daily’: The Chinese Surveillance State, Part 1, N.Y Times, Hosted by Michael Barbaro, produced by Andy Mills, Alexandra Leigh Young, Jessica Cheung and Luke Vander Ploeg, and edited by Lisa Tobin

[xviii] Id.

[xix] Id.

[xx] Paul Mozur, One Month, 500,000 Face Scans: How China Is Using A.I. to Profile a Minority, N.Y. TIMES, Apr. 14, 2019

[xxi] ‘The Daily’: The Chinese Surveillance State, West.

[xxii] Id.

[xxiii] Id.