Have you ever been conscious that you are under constant surveillance and somebody is literally watching everything you do?

Well, I remember growing up in Pretoria (South Africa) in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was a transitional period for South Africa and many of the racially-based movement restrictions were starting to be relaxed. Black people could now live in “the suburbs” and roam around town without a curfew or any restrictions.

However, as a teenager, I remember vividly how when walking into retail stores and bookstores the shop attendants would follow me around at every single turn inside the shop and stand uncomfortably close for my liking, I would even feel guilty for feeling the need to blow my nose while inside the store given the constant surveillance.

Uganda's Police Force is working with China's Huawei Technologies to install CCTV cameras equipped with facial recognition capabilities. Opposition political parties have raised concerns that this will be used to track and target them. This is one of the surveillance cameras in Kampala.

Facial recognition security cameras

I was reminded of that period in time when in 2019, China’s Huawei Technologies is working with Uganda’s Police Force to install CCTV facial recognition cameras. According to the police, the cameras will help stop violent crime.

Now, Uganda’s opposition political party leaders came out to oppose the installation of the Artificial Intelligence-powered cameras saying that they are being installed to target and harass them and their followers. Given Ugandan authorities' history of clamping down on dissent online and in real life, I tend to agree with them.

Not too long after Uganda's announcement, Cameroon opened a command center to monitor the Huawei Technologies surveillance cameras it has installed in Yaounde. At the time, Cameroon's police force reported that there were 2,000 surveillance installed in the country with 7,000 more to be installed soon.

In this episode of iAfrikan Radio's The Tefo Mohapi Show, Murray Hunter explains the difference between privacy and secrecy, South African government's mass surveillance of citizens and what you can do to protect your online privacy

Similar to Uganda, the opening of the CCTV command center in Cameroon didn't go without any complaints. A Camtel employee, who apparently wanted to remain anonymous, is quoted as stating that "They [Huawei] are reluctant to transfer technology to local staff because they want to remain there."

However, there are other second-order effects of being constantly under surveillance.

Effects of being under constant surveillance

One of the first things that happen to most people when they know they are constantly being watched for any bad behavior is that they develop increased anxiety and stress. You don’t want to f*** up because of the potential consequences. This, according to some researchers, is a result of feeling a loss of privacy in one's life.

As a result, as you can imagine, you become overly conforming to whatever the rules irrespective if they are legal or sensible. The idea that there is a constant camera watching your every move, although not a direct order, many people end up feeling the need to conform to whatever the state (reasonable or not) expects of them.

Although yet to be officially opened as per the City of Johannesburg's tweet, the so-called "intelligence center" and its AI-powered cameras raises a few questions not only against invasion of privacy but also about potential bias when it comes to "detect criminal behavior."

A third-order effect of this is that it potentially (to the benefit of the state) takes away people’s agency and their inclination to protest or disagree.

Does surveillance reduce crime?

Possibly.

However, in my humble opinion, it does more damage to the fabric of society than it benefits it. In Uganda’s case, this might be something the state wants given that in a couple of years there will be elections.

On the other hand of all this, you get the bias that is typically associated with algorithms. Like the City of Johannesburg which claims to have intelligent cameras that can “detect criminal behavior."

However, that’s a topic for another day.

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