Do AI and Algorithms Truly Make Our Society Safer?

portretfoto van Marc Schuilenburg

What do the Amazon Ring video doorbell and Tesla electric cars have in common? These two products may seem very different, but they both represent forms of digital surveillance through which algorithms process vast amounts of data to make society safer. On 23 June, Marc Schuilenburg, Professor of Digital Surveillance at Erasmus School of Law, delivered his inaugural lecture titled Making Surveillance Public. In his lecture, Schuilenburg delved into the effects of digitalisation and algorithmisation on the issue of safety.

Where surveillance was initially carried out with the naked eye, in 1990, this form of surveillance was supplemented with a growing number of surveillance cameras. Over time, this has evolved into a vast network of interconnected cameras. This system has now been equipped with automatic facial recognition technology due to digitalisation and algorithmisation. “The emergence of these new forms of digital surveillance raises questions regarding the transformation of security practices,” Schuilenburg explains.

Consideration of interests

 Within this development, Schuilenburg emphasises the following questions: How can detecting and enforcing criminal activities benefit from these new forms of digital surveillance? And how can ethics and the rule of law keep these new technologies manageable and accountable?

“Making Surveillance Public, the title of my inaugural address, is the core concept for answering these questions. First and foremost, making surveillance public is based on the idea that digital surveillance makes the activities of individuals visible, but the applications used for this purpose often remain invisible to the general public. This also relates to the societal role of surveillance; it contributes to safety, which can be considered a public good,” Schuilenburg states.

To address his research questions, Schuilenburg approaches the public aspect of surveillance from four perspectives.

A central role in society

 “Firstly, developments such as digitalisation, softening, and normalisation have expanded surveillance to unprecedented proportions. Both the scale and depth of surveillance have substantially increased. From the massive collection of data in healthcare to the deep penetration of citizens’ private lives with surveillance products that are no longer recognised as such because they have become part of daily life - from smart doorbells to thermostats making autonomous decisions,” explains Schuilenburg.

Digitalisation and algorithmisation of security practices

 “Moreover, anyone who thinks big data policing is solely a world of spies, police, and the state will be disappointed. Many different parties utilise surveillance and work with vast datasets and algorithms, often operating under fewer regulations than the national state,” Schuilenburg points out. “In addition to regulatory questions for the government regarding this new digital security domain, big data policing also gives rise to ethical and legal concerns, from discrimination of minorities to a lack of transparency and public accountability over the used data and algorithms,” according to Schuilenburg.

How can digital technology be employed with care?

From a public perspective, it is crucial that the detection of criminal activities can benefit from these new digital tools as much as possible. However, this also means keeping these techniques manageable and controllable within a framework of values important to our democratic society. “Therefore, I deem it highly important that during the development of new technology, especially during the design and development phase, it should be considered what our society considers essential - encompassing both foundational public values such as privacy and non-discrimination, and procedural values like transparency and accountability,” Schuilenburg asserts.

What does this mean for criminology?

 “There is a need for an approach to digital technology that pays more attention to both the human factor and the integration of public values in the design and development process. This requires incorporating the perspective of surveillance experiences in the proper care for technology.”

Making Surveillance Public is a plea to initiate digital criminology, focusing on how the digital turn – encompassing all digital developments – is changing the playing field of criminology regarding the nature and extent of cybercrime. However, digital criminology also examines the impacts of digitalisation and algorithmisation on forensic care, criminal justice, and security practices: which digital tools exist, who uses them, what results they yield, and who they are used against. “For all of this digital wisdom is necessary - and it starts with education and how we impart this knowledge to our students”, Schuilenburg emphasises.

In this regard, Schuilenburg distances himself from a perspective on digital surveillance where presumed technical and economic benefits prevail while sociological aspects such as power and knowledge remain overlooked. “Sometimes, the debate about data and algorithms seems to revolve only around efficiency and effectiveness. While these are indeed public values and understandable assessment criteria, the practice of surveillance, as I would argue, often contrasts with our expectations about it. Not because of its immense technical possibilities, but because these techniques must always be viewed in relation to the social environments they are a part of.”

“Only by embracing digital wisdom and all perspectives can we better understand what big data and algorithms can do, but also what they do to us,” Schuilenburg concludes.

More information

Read more about the inaugural lecture of Marc Schuilenburg in the NRC, Vers Beton and Sociale Vraagstukken (in Dutch).

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