Renew's Brogan Meaney questions the necessity of Caroline Lucas's call for an all-female cabinet.
On Sunday, the Green Party’s very own Caroline Lucas called for an all-female cabinet, sending letters to an all-white group of female leaders across the country. The lack of diversity is apparent, but how helpful is this suggestion of an all women’s cabinet in solving the problems caused by Brexit?
As a woman, any all-female call to arms is appealing. We’re women and we can do anything. And I mean anything. We literally create people. Yet, I’m struggling to see what Caroline Lucas expects to gain from this suggestion, nor how she considers this to be a group of ‘national unity’.
In the era of the struggling Suffragettes, this would have been a radical suggestion. Perhaps it remains one in some circles. But within today’s society, the fight for societal equality cannot be fought bywhite women alone. And Lucas’s dismissal of ethnic and cultural diversity removes any radicality of the suggestion. Powerful and successful women, already prominent figures in politics, ready to save a broken Britain.
All women in politics are faced with difficulties every day. A prime example: when UKIP candidate Carl Benjamin commented, “I wouldn’t even rape her”, about Labour’s Jess Phillips, which caused Phillips to be verbally assaulted in the street and attacked online by Twitter bots and angry men. This comment was made solely because she’s a woman. However, these inequalities are made worse for women of colour. Politics is a professional realm that sometimes resembles a gentlemen’s club, and the scales have been skewed for a long time in mens’ favour. But, to level the playing field, is the suggestion of an all-female cabinet a viable solution?
Simply, no. It would erect further walls and boundaries between social groups. By doing this, we take steps backwards. To actually progress as a species we need to be inclusive of everyone. This means practising equality, despite historical inequalities.
Some would argue that an all-female cabinet could do a better job than Johnson’s government. But the mediocrity of our political system right now should not be used as the standard for future political figures and groups. And just because Lucas’s suggestion might be a step-up from our current government does not mean it’s a step-up for women’s rights in society.
Creating further non-diverse groups to challenge pre-existing inequalities does not reduce them. It merely produces more.
Lucas herself has apologised for the lack of diversity she presented, but her mistake emphasises the importance of getting your language right. We must ensure our actions, and the words we use to express and describe these actions, benefit us all, and actively work to reduce inequalities. Lucas’s all-female alliance does not.
Deputy Leader James Clarke breaks down Renew's approach to a potential general election in the autumn.
We are hurtling towards a climactic moment in UK politics and all interested parties, groups and individuals need to get prepared in short order.
Renew was formed in 2017 by passionate individuals who saw the need for renewal and reform and abandoned their old parties to join us. There have been more ups and downs than we could ever have anticipated, but we arrive in late 2019 in great shape and ready to campaign.
It is also true that we are supported almost exclusively by remainers and 'bregretters', so it is clear that Renew must do everything it can to harness the remain vote and to prevent a harmful Brexit majority in parliament following an autumn election.
In the last two years, we have recruited and trained scores of high-quality candidates and activists: people from outside politics who have become energized by the desire to help steer the UK away from a crisis. For us, the result of the 2016 EU referendum was a symptom of deeper issues, including the failed two-party political system. We think that the solution should include a new party that bridges the gap between career politicians and an increasingly disenchanted electorate.
This autumn election, if it proceeds, is not the election we were planning towards, but we must still participate and contribute to any movement that seeks to bring progressives, grassroots groups and remain parties together.
Renew emphatically supports the project to build a remain alliance, designed to give pro-European parties the best chance of winning seats, we confirm that we are prepared to stand our candidates aside in key constituencies to fight alongside the Liberal Democrats, Green Party, Plaid Cymru and others.
We stood aside in Brecon to help deliver a Conservative seat to the Lib Dems, we joined forces with Change UK in the European elections and we worked with Lib Dems and Greens to select a ‘unity remain’ candidate in Peterborough. We have a track record of cooperation and innovative thinking.
We’re now announcing Renew candidates throughout the UK in anticipation of an Autumn election to signal our willingness to be part of this exciting new approach to politics. All of our candidates have pledged to support a 'remain alliance' candidate in each constituency, whether they are a Renew candidate or the representative of another remain-supporting party. Whatever happens, we will fight to prevent the Conservatives forcing through a damaging no-deal Brexit on October 31st.
With tensions in the country running so high, not everyone will agree with our approach, but we didn’t build Renew to stumble at the first obstacle: we have always strived to be the right people, doing the right things for the right reasons. If that means stepping forward as a candidate, or stepping back to support another, we will do our part.
In a single-issue general election, Renew must play its part and provide a platform for all of those people who want not only to protect the UK from crisis, but also advocate for the kind of reform and renewal required to prevent the next crisis.
Renew's Brogan Meaney asks: do advancements in AI look set to further worsen pre-existing economic inequalities?
We’re no strangers to the chilling cries of robots stealing our jobs. We’re in the midst of a technological revolution, and like during other industry-transforming revolutions that came before, we’re on the brink of a dramatic transition within the workforce -automation.
The fast-paced technological advances within the field of AI have already brought automation to the workplace, with 1.5 million jobs in the UK currently at risk of it. The most commonplace example of automation can be seen inside supermarkets across the country: automated self-checkout tills. As these have already demonstrated, advances within the field of AI will have a dramatic impact on many industries. Although these can mean a more streamlined and efficient workforce, there are other consequences.
For example, the economists Anton Korinek and Joseph E. Stiglitz have argued that economic inequality is one of the main challenges we face in the advancement of workforce technology innovation.
We live in a world where the richest one percent own half of the world's wealth. This results in disparities in life expectancies, seen not only globally, but also at home: in England, the gap in life expectancy between the wealthiest and the most deprived areas can reach up to 9.4 years.
The issue of job automation is a complex, multifaceted problem. We don’t know exactly how technology will advance, or how it will affect wealth inequalities within the UK. However, based on current technologies, the risk of losing your job to automation for those lower-skilled workers far outweighs the risk for higher-skilled workers. The three jobs most at risk are waiters and waitresses, shelf-fillers, and elementary sales occupations; the three least at risk are medical practitioners, higher education teaching professionals and senior professionals of educational establishments.
Although AI will make some jobs obsolete, it will, of course, create new ones. However, these are jobs that will require specialisation. For example, when human supermarket cashiers are fully automated, the ex-cashier would be faced with having to learn new skills or adapt to an unstable reality where they are very much replaceable.
Those most at risk of automation are the ones already economically marginalised within the workforce. The ONS reports that 70.2% of the roles at high risk of automation are currently held by women, and, in addition, the age group most affected by automation are those aged between 20 and 24.
The risk of automation also varies on region. This is due to the jobs available, meaning areas with a greater volume of roles, in particular higher-skilled roles, are safer from the threat of automation. This increases the risks for those who are already both economically marginalised and economically disadvantaged within society.
Current AI research focuses on the importance of policy regulation to prevent exacerbating pre-existing equalities. Democratising access to technology is crucial, as is creating equal opportunities within technological advancement. Some other suggestions have included a universal basic income (which Finland trialled last year), a ‘robot tax’, a focus on lifelong learning and training, especially within the fields of computer science and STEM education. There is also the discussion of privilege within AI advantages, with Korinek and Stiglitz commenting that it is conceivable that the wealthiest of humans will be able to finance, dictate, or sway certain advancements.
These are all attempts to offset inequalities that this workplace revolution will cause. But will they be enough? The automation of certain job roles, or particular aspects of roles, will soon be unavoidable. To prevent worsening economic inequalities, we need a government who takes these issues seriously.
Renew member Paul Gerken comments on the fantastical fantasy of 'just believing' in a no deal Brexit.
Did you know that JM Barrie, author of Peter Pan, had to add ‘fairy dust’ as a requirement for the children’s capacity to fly in his novels, due to an uproar from parents? Apparently, up and down the country, children were repeatedly hospitalised after throwing themselves off the edge of their beds, believing all they needed to fly were ‘wonderful thoughts’.
And so, to a no-deal Brexit, a distinct lack of fairy dust, and yet a world of wonderful thoughts - for some at least. For others, we’re already at the point of being at the foot of the bed, several hairline fractures deep and requiring medical attention. Brexiteers, on the contrary, stand perched at the foot of the bed, arms spreadeagled and are thinking… well, what are they thinking?
Ah yes! Trade deals. Yummy scrummy trade deals. They’re going to be so bigly and great and it’s all going to be fine.
Except, obviously, it isn’t. For some, the golden egg of Brexit was akin to a 51st state relationship with the US. We would be hugged tight to the “good ‘ol” (inverted commas required) US of A, and something like… loads of money… would suddenly come our way. Apparently all we would need to do is eat some dodgy chicken, (believe), and everything would be fine. Further details not required.
Spanners in the works come in the form of Congress saying that they absolutely will not entertain a trade deal if the UK jeopardises the Good Friday agreement. Just to join the dots, that means if we leave without a deal, there is certainly no deal with the US around the corner.
Crumbs. Rocks and hard places suddenly getting a little more rockier and a little more harder.
Just believe. Just… deep breath… believe.
Couldn’t we do loads of deals with all those poor countries that will be rich countries one day? Look at their growth rates! Those percentages are much bigger than stupid Belgium. Think about it; we’ll sell them all of our financial service things that they barely know they need yet, and we’re going to be minted! F*ck the fairy dust - I. AM. FLYING!
The trouble, I guess, is that ‘just believing’ in fact involves the very real spending of our money. Alexander Boris Johnson has agreed to spend £2.1 billion on no-deal Brexit planning. To clarify, that isn’t money being spent to protect our economy, jobs and services, its money that we’re - and I’ll use a term from Alex Johnson himself here - ‘spaffing up the wall’ just to try to make the EU believe we’re crazy enough to leave so that… the whole Ireland issue just disappears? I don’t know anymore. I’ve lost the logic, but I guess that’s where we just carry on believing.
Capitalism is “very much part of the solution” to the climate crisis, Bank of England governor Mark Carney said in an interview yesterday. Perhaps he's right, says Gwen Jones in this Renew Long Read.
For a long time, those leading the charge against climate change have branded capitalism – responsible for the oil economy and prioritisation of instant growth over sustainability – as the planet’s greatest adversary. The Green Party, and their contemporaries Extinction Rebellion, have rallied against free markets as working in opposition to their cause.
And many experts agree. The line? Capitalism and environmentalism are mutually exclusive, and the effective mitigation of climate change will necessitate the end of capitalism in favour of a more sustainable economic system.
In response to Carney’s Channel 4 appearance, an Extinction Rebellion spokesperson told the Guardian, “We are destroying our planet, and business as usual is not going to save us. We must question any system that has led us to this path of mass extinction and look to more sustainable economic models that are not based on resource depletion and increasing emissions.”
But Carney is confident in his convictions. According to the economist, who has previously worked for Goldman Sachs, the opportunities associated with tackling climate change are growing rapidly - and so are the costs of failing to do so. In a system predicated on the exploitation of opportunity and an aversion to risk, capital will move naturally in the direction of sustainability. In his strident defence of capitalism as a solution to the climate crisis, Carney argues that companies who continue to ignore the issue “will go bankrupt without question.”
Is he right? Like many things in life, the answer is not cut and dry. Capitalism won’t solve the planet’s problems, at least if it’s acting alone.
Being a climate capitalist
Taking this leap from traditional to sustainable business practices requires sizeable investment, and, for the meantime anyway, the majority of green energy sources are still more expensive than their conventional counterparts. This hurts a company’s bottom line and means that prices may have to rise in order to maintain profits.
In a competitive market, this has some important implications; businesses are forced to make a choice, between refining practices at their own expense or sticking to their traditional process (even if this means running the risk of worsening climate change). In an ideal world, all polluting corporations decide to cut their emissions simultaneously in the name of the climate. This comes at a cost to each business, but gives no business a comparative advantage over any other, meaning all maintain their share of the market.
However, no business can be sure of what the others will do. It’s a dog-eat-dog world after all, and they have no reason to trust each other. If Business A decides to cut its emissions but Business B does not, Business B can take advantage of lower operating costs and price A out of the market. The same is also true the other way around.
Carney is right – the economic costs of ignoring climate change are rising, and the costs relative to opportunities to mitigate it opportunities of mitigation are shrinking, fast. But money talks, and until we reach a point where the costs outweigh the benefits in the short to medium term, no business will be willing to blink first.
The solution most likely lies with a radical rethink of the role the state plays in creating markets and driving innovation. In the liberal economic tradition, the state is portrayed as a clumsy, bureaucratic obstruction to the actions of the dynamic free market. This is as damaging as it is misguided. The state, with its plentiful resources and capacity to take risks (that private actors often cannot and will not take), is able to defy common barriers to innovation.
Historically, governments have played a critical role in funding some of the most influential developments in tech to date. The internet, GPS, voice recognition, biotech and countless pharmaceutical breakthroughs have come out of US government agencies DARPA and NIH respectively. The Green Revolution is next – ARPA-E, the US government body responsible for energy production and innovation – is already having an impact.
Market forces are notoriously unreliable when it comes to advancing the good of society. Markets don’t have morals, but states are unique in their ability to create new markets and shape existing ones towards a socially productive end. Financial viability is key to private action – the state can incentivise innovation in desirable areas through grants and subsidies, the likes of which benefitted Apple in the early stages of its development. Governments should also be prepared to take a lead in certain areas, investing in high risk, high return strategies to secure this new role within the economy.
This is not to undermine the value of private actors in driving innovation and wealth creation. But markets are not infallible and failure is commonplace. Up until now, the advancing climate crisis driven by the quest for growth has been an excruciating example of this. The right conditions must be set before the private sphere can drive us forward in a direction we actually want to be travelling in.
Britain is lost at sea with little hope of being rescued, says Renew's Gwen Jones.
Politics is getting noisier. It’s unfashionable nowadays for politicians not to provide an immediate response to events, whether it be glittering praise or seething condemnation. The new politics is loud, brazen and frankly outrageous, and the stately reservation of yesterday seems almost entirely obsolete.
It’s hardly surprising then, that in this kind of climate, silence is confounding. When big things happen, it’s not often that we’re met with...nothing. So when it comes to diplomacy, perhaps we shouldn’t underestimate the immense power of silence. Exhibit A; the response, or glaring lack thereof, from the EU to the UK’s seizure of an Iranian Oil Tanker in the Mediterranean earlier this month.
In light of intelligence that the ship was carrying oil bound for Syria, Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picado had seized the tanker aided by the British Royal Marines. The grounds for this, he said, lay with EU sanctions against the Syrian government. According to the British, the 2.1 million barrels of oil onboard the vessel could have been used to power military forces operating alongside Russia in the Hama region of Syria.
Far from a quiet affair. And yet there was nothing to be heard from the EU - no statement, no hat-tip, no nod of gratitude. The fact that this stupefying wall of silence comes from one of our closest allies makes this even more astonishing; even more so considering the UK’s actions were taken in the name of the EU’s very own sanctions.
Another flagrant silence came just a few days later when the Iranian government sent retaliative forces to hound an Isle of Man flagged BP supertanker in the Straight of Hormuz. The British were forced to send a warship to the region in order to accompany their commercial fleet, effectively rendering them complicit in the US’s military strategy to protect the international shipping corridor. The EU again said nothing. This time, their silence reflected a frosty condemnation of the UK’s clumsy attempts to entertain American military operations, undermining the EU’s delicate diplomatic endeavours with Tehran.
And yet, the EU was not the only palpable absence. Despite the US’s initial glee at the UK’s seizure of the Iranian Grace I tanker, Iran’s retaliation was met with trifling support. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered only the following response: “The responsibility in the first instance falls to the United Kingdom to take care of their ships. The US has a responsibility to do its part.”
The special relationship with Britain’s supposed closest ally after Brexit is also under strain due to events in the Gulf. While the US is seeking its own international naval coalition to protect against Iranian threats to the Hormuz shipping canal, the UK and several European partners are pursuing their own, which, according to Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, reflects the difference in agendas between Europe and the US with regards to Tehran.
In light of the US’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal - to which the UK remains fully committed - there are concerns over whether the US’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign of belligerent language, hefty sanctions and military force on Iran is at odds with European objectives.
And thus, the UK finds itself between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Firmly, and perhaps irreconcilably, at odds with one (or both) of its closest and most important international allies. While this may seem like a unique set of circumstances, in fact, the Iran crisis is deeply emblematic of the kind of international support the UK can expect from its neighbours after Brexit. If Britain chooses to succumb to the whims of an ever-more contentious US administration, the wedge between Britain and the EU 27 will continue to grow. And yet, close cooperation from the US would be vital in the otherwise crippling context of a hard Brexit.
All this seems a far cry from the ‘Global Britain’ promised during the run-up to the 2016 referendum. Rather, these are the quandaries of an island nation out all on its own.
Renew Regional Coordinator and prospective parliamentary candidate David Burling gives his take on the damage that Brexit could do to our country.
As October 31st looms large in the window of Command Module “Brexit”, a tricky balance needs to be struck by our leaders to ensure that our country re-enters reality safely. We mustn't crash through the atmosphere into eternal inertia, burning up in the heat caused by division and hatred that appeared after the referendum to leave the European Union.
Already we have seen the value of the Pound drop to its lowest level in two years. With economists talking about “parity with the dollar”, there is a real risk that rhetoric designed to reassure the Tory heartlands is going to have real-world impacts on millions of people across the UK.
A weaker Pound means higher import prices, which means higher food & energy prices, which means higher inflation. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is already highlighting that the current household income squeeze is as negatively felt like the 1992 or 2008 crises. With the potential of GBP dropping in value, the impact on the poorest in society could be devastating.
The rhetoric around Brexit needs to be measured. Our leaders need to show the responsibility of their office by choosing their words carefully. A 'Do or Die' mentality has no place in pragmatic politics and unpicking forty years of integration and mutual cooperation deserves much more respect than is currently offered.
The current administration has been stuck in an ideological tailspin, arrogantly asserting that it can “deliver Brexit” without the skills or the competence to see it through. Our politicians need to come together to form the necessary structures that will progress this project and deal with it as the infrastructural challenge that it is. If revoking Article 50 is the way to facilitate this, then it should be done without delay.
Brexit is not simply about tearing up a treaty; it is a fundamental change in the way the UK does business with the world. This was a message that was lost during the referendum debate and has been absent from political discourse ever since.
For me, I see this chaos continuing under a Johnson or Hunt administration. I feel we are destined to watch this car crash in slow motion for some time to come.
For another Renew take on Brexit, check out this long read.
Millennials continue to bear the brunt of Britain's Housing Crisis, and the situation is only set to get worse. Cut them a break, says Renew's Gwen Jones.
Consigned to snowflake-dom by wider society, it’s fair to say Millennials - devotees to Love Island, Instagram aficionados and partial to a good Monzo account - are often tarnished with a fairly unflattering brush.
Branded complainers and hopeless hedonists; ignorant of the unrivalled luxury their parents’ generation worked so bloody hard to provide them with. Ah, if only it were so simple. Scratch beneath the surface of the stereotype and it becomes a lot more difficult to dismiss the plight of today’s twenty-somethings as mere toys being thrown out of the pram.
As it turns out, Millennials really do have something to complain about - that’s according to this week’s news. The headline? At least 630,000 20-30 year olds are likely to find themselves homeless upon retirement, having been denied access to the property ladder for the duration of their working lives. Basically, it’s another kick in the balls for ‘Generation Rent’ - a bitter pill to swallow for a cohort brought up being told to follow their dreams.
Dream indeed - of a two-storey semi-detached in the suburbs (picket fence optional). Except that for hoards of today’s young people, the image of traditional idyll in the ‘burbs will forever remain just that.
According to a recent government inquiry, hundreds of thousands of millennials are facing an “inevitable catastrophe” of homelessness upon retirement. On average, those in privately-rented accomodation (many of whom are young) pay 40% of their earnings in rent. Sound hefty? Try doubling it. Incomes typically fall by around half in retirement, and for those still renting in their 60s and 70s, rent rates practicable at working age quickly become unaffordable.
While there’s no telling what the property market will look like in a couple of decades’ time, it’s hardly difficult to imagine a scenario where rents continue to rise at a rate which outstrips or keeps pace with wage growth. If this does turn out to be the case, 52% of pensioners will be spending more than 40% of their income on rent by 2038.
From this point onwards, the outlook starts looking pretty bleak; for those unable to afford rent at market rates, it’s a choice between homelessness or temporary accommodation (which comes at great cost to the state).
According to Richard Best, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on housing and care for older people, “The number of households in the private rented sector headed by someone aged over 64 will more than treble over the next 25 to 30 years.” And, unless an additional 21,000 affordable homes are built per year within the same time frame, there simply won’t be anywhere for these people to go. “The consequence is bound to be homelessness for some.”
The same research also found that the number of eldery households living in poor quality or unsuitable housing could rocket from 56,000 to 188,000 over the next 20 years, and to 236,500 in the ten years after that. This is bad news for the millennial generation, the pensioners of tomorrow - substandard housing is already known to cause tens of thousands of elderly deaths every year.
A sorry forecast indeed. They say a man’s house is his castle - so where does that leave us?
As October 31st draws ever nearer, a clear vision for post-Brexit Britain is proving stubbornly illusive. So far it’s been all too easy to lay out what we most definitely do not want (backstop, anybody?) but coming up with an identity to carry us into the future is looking to be a great deal more difficult.
So what’s it to be? As a nation, what are the things we truly value and wish to protect? Aside from the obvious quips involving tea or a penchant for queueing, the British really do have a lot to be proud of. As a country generally not afraid to speak its mind, it’s perhaps unsurprising that among these are a profound appreciation for freedom of speech and free expression.
Press freedom is often revered as the jewel in the metaphorical crown of Britain’s commitment to free speech. According to the New York Times, "Britain has a long tradition of a free, inquisitive press", despite this never having been constitutionally codified. They’re not wrong either; even in very recent memory, the mainstream media (or “MSM” as it has been latterly and derogatorily referred to) has played a critical role in exposing wrong-doings and holding those responsible to account. Whether it be antisemitism in the Labour Party, Windrush, or the not-so-above-board role of Cambridge Analytica in the Leave.EU campaign, journalistic integrity and eagerness have a lot to be celebrated for.
Recently, the Kim Darroch row has returned the mainstream news media - and the role it plays in our democracy - to the nation’s attention. The publication of leaked material written by the UK’s ambassador to the US has been met with a warning by the MET; that doing so may constitute a criminal offence. Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu cautioned that media outlets could face prosecution if they published any further leaked government communications.
Politicians and journalists in their droves have rallied against what has been widely viewed as a direct attack on press freedom. Tory leadership hopeful Jeremy Hunt said in a tweet that he would “defend to the hilt the right of the press to publish those leaks if they receive them & judge them to be in the public interest: that is their job.”
Indeed. The sudden operatic flurry is commendable, but let’s step back and take a look at the wider context for a second. Despite the media’s many triumphs, it might be worth taking notice of the fact that in this year’s World Press Freedom Index, the UK currently occupies 33rd place. That puts us behind the likes of Samoa, Lithuania, Namibia and South Africa, and easily among the worst performers in Western Europe.
Freedom of press is already under threat - recent events are merely an illustration of why. Journalists’ right to publish leaked content is part of the problem, yes. But there are myriad other ways in which the ‘MSM’ is facing encroachment by a wider political conversation that has lurched towards authoritarianism in other ways too.
MPs have threatened to restrict the use of end-to-end encryption technologies like Whatsapp. The conflict between politicians and press post-Leveson inquiry still looms large; the Data Protection Bill, passed last year, gave antagonists of the press an opportunity to further punish the news media for its collective failures, both real and perceived. Amendments to the bill tabled in the Lords sought to make news outlets liable for the cost to both sides incurred in privacy cases. While necessary for other reasons, the revised bill offers scanty exemptions for journalists from data protection laws.
None of this is to say that the media should be granted a free pass in every instance - after all, journalists make mistakes, the 2011 phone hacking scandal being perhaps the most noteworthy example of erroneous judgement in the media. Like others in the public domain, journalists must be held to account - but placing unnecessary restrictions on journalistic access to information and reporting rights is by no means in the public interest, and has no place in an inclusive, liberal democracy of the future.
Facial recognition technology is one of the many areas in which AI is changing our society. Here Gwen Jones explores the implications it has for our civil liberties.
In the UK, we have become accustomed to the freedoms associated with a limited state. We vote as we please, we are free to speak our minds, and we maintain our innocence until proven guilty.
We’re also quick to point the finger at anyone who doesn’t abide by our model of a ‘free and fair’ society; China’s Communist Party, for example, is reprimanded constantly (and rightly) for its brand of surveillance-based authoritarianism.
It’s often said that while it’s easy to point out the flaws in others, it’s more difficult to notice the same flaws in oneself. And so it is for the insurgent use of surveillance tech in our Western, ‘liberal’ societies. Increasingly, facial recognition technology is taking on a prominent role in criminal justice, aiding the police force in both trials and arrests.
1984-style mass-surveillance is generally thought of as something reserved for far-off dictatorships. In reality, there are aspects of Orwell’s dystopian fiction which bear more than a little likeness to our own systems.
Of course, the renunciation of civil liberties in the name of national security is not new. Our political institutions are designed to keep us safe, all while attempting to uphold as great a degree of personal freedom as possible. It’s a finely-tuned balancing act and it’s not uncommon for the needle to swing out of line in one direction or the other. The expansion of police powers under Blair’s post-9/11 government, for example, was widely regarded as a lurch towards authoritarianism. But for a country that rejected ID cards and a national DNA database, facial recognition technology seems like a step firmly in the wrong direction.
A number of pilot schemes for facial recognition tech are currently underway in London, and problems are already starting to emerge.
During one trial in January, a man walks past a facial recognition camera and covers his face. Despite the MET having released a statement which said that “anyone who declines to be scanned will not necessarily be viewed as suspicious”, the man was stopped, forced to uncover his face and photographed anyway. On getting angry – and who can blame him? – he was given a £90 fine for anti-social behaviour. Other witness reports suggest he was not the only one.
To a world where refusing to comply with facial recognition requirements – which effectively turn people into walking ID cards – ‘Orwellian’ really isn’t an exaggeration. This isn’t even to mention the issues the technology has had thus far with catastrophic inaccuracy; for instance, algorithmic bias means people with darker skin are less likely to be identified correctly, resulting predominantly from the fact that most of the software’s developers are white.
According to the BBC, at least three opportunities to test how the technology deals with non-white faces have been missed over the last five years. The Home Office’s response to these criticisms has so far been to reiterate that “the technology continues to evolve” and that its effectiveness is “under constant review.”
It’s easy to imagine a world in which the technology has been perfected, improving search accuracy and reducing the margin of error to almost nil. But is this really a comforting thought? In some ways at least, a mass surveillance network that works infallibly is almost more terrifying than one that does not.
Generally speaking, the benefits of any technology that interferes with civil liberties in such a way must be at least proportional to the cost incurred to these liberties. How on earth this will be calculated remains to be seen; one can imagine the ease with which this ‘proportionality’ could be successively requalified. It might be, of course, that the government of the day maintains its commitment to the proper and restricted use of this technology. But who’s to say that future governments will do the same?
It’s no secret that power isn’t easily given up once awarded. This begs the question: once the infrastructure has been built and the technology created, will we still be able to change our minds further down the line?
We should think very carefully about whether or not this is the kind of future we want to live in, before embarking any further down what looks to be a one-way street.