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A 2020 court fight in South Africa reveals dominance of biometric surveillance industry

A 2020 court fight in South Africa reveals dominance of biometric surveillance industry

A multi-part news investigation by the MIT Technology Review looking at private surveillance — which some call surveillance capitalism — in South Africa touches on a seemingly inconsequential court case about privacy rights.

The case involved an attempt to regulate the location of facial recognition infrastructure. Now almost two years in, the case illustrates the difficulty privacy and rights activists face in curbing machine vision networks in public places.

The High Court of South Africa decided in favor of a vendor, Vumacam, one of many companies rushing to create government and private surveillance networks on the African continent.

One of the interesting aspects of the case (summarized here and here) is that it involved a minor government body trying to rein in barely-controlled surveillance infrastructure growth in South Africa.

Vumacam executives steadfastly claim that they do not use facial recognition algorithms; that code cannot be trusted to operate ethically at this point in machine learning development. Instead, their cameras reportedly are only used to recognize non-biometrically defined people and objects including license plates and pre-programmed anomalous movement.

The company sells access to its cameras and analytics. Buyers include businesses, homeowner associations, private security forces and the police themselves.

The lawsuit came to light to audiences in developed economies through a four-part series this month on AI colonialism, in the MIT Technology Review. (A good read; worth the time).

The Johannesburg Road Agency in 2019 tried to squelch expansion of camera networks mounted on poles near sidewalks by reversing course and refusing to issue easements for poles.

Law analysts at the time said the agency was making specious arguments, alleging that it had the right to prevent ropes, wires and poles that could inhibit foot and vehicle traffic unless specific requirements were met.

Prior to 2019, Vumacam, a licensed electronic communications network services firm, had met government requirements and was given easements. That stopped when the agency said surveillance cameras — and distribution of the data to third parties — would inhibit the travel of “innocent people.”

The High Court sided with Vumacam, saying that the road agency’s charter covers none of that.

This is interesting because a first-year law student could have foreseen the cheesecloth-like substance of the agency’s argument, and yet it was felt by some in the privacy community to be worth a try.

In the United States, at least, the battle against over-surveillance has been fought at city, county and state levels to make privacy a higher priority among legislators. A few laws that impose lesser restrictions on government use of biometric surveillance have been codified.

And even fewer laws with sobering affects for private organizations — such as the state of Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act — have passed.

Analysis of this subject published last fall in The Conversation found the governments of six noteworthy nations have passed ineffectual privacy laws or were ignoring relevant laws. One was South Africa. The rest were Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan.

The article was about government use of biometric surveillance, but it is not an awful assumption that a government spending big portions of their budgets buying tools from vendors to spy on their citizens blanch when learning that those same vendors are selling to the private sector.

The Johannesburg Road Agency’s effort to shelter some people from surveillance might have seemed like a possible David-versus-Goliath fight at the time. In 2022, it looks more like Don Quixote trundling toward a windmill.

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