Like individuals, cities that make the quickest and most efficient use of the emerging technologies stand to prosper the most. But keeping up with the pace of technological innovation is challenging and not all technologies are devoid of unwanted consequences. Urban planners should be aware of this. Modern urban planning was born as an attempt to manage and mitigate the side effects that rapid urbanization brought on through the industrial revolution. Urban planning in its essence is a constant struggle to provide for human activities and pursuits a built environment that is enabling, safe and sustainable.
In a bid to make urban areas safer several cities around the world have turned to technology. Recent innovations in telecommunications technologies, especially data transfer, storage and processing have made mass surveillance possible at an unprecedented scale. Several cities in Pakistan are in the process of having CCTV cameras installed at hundreds of locations. In the province of Punjab, the Punjab Safe Cities Authority has been conceived and tasked with the responsibility for keeping eyes on public places, buildings of importance and traffic intersections throughout the major cities. The thousands of cameras relay their footage to a centralized monitoring, command and control center 24/7 in each city.
Considering the country’s security situation where its cities have been the venues of incessant terrorist attacks in recent years, the move has not been unwarranted. The relevant authorities have been quick to claim that these cameras have allowed them to apprehend criminals and have proven helpful in keeping crime low. Closed circuit camera footage also played a key role in identifying and finally arresting a felon involved in a high-profile rape and murder case recently. On the flipside, while surveillance arms law enforcement, it can also make repression more efficient. The efficacy of increased surveillance in curbing crime is also still moot. It is worth noting here that although not known for technological advancement generally or vigilant law enforcement, Pakistani cities have been among the earliest receivers of mass surveillance. This development is mainly owed to the increased Chinese investments in the country’s infrastructure and weak legal traditions concerning individual rights and privacy.
Surveillance without consent and oversight is a trespassing of citizens’ rights that can lead to more harm than good. In some cities of the world concerns related to the violation of privacy and the potential misuse of the information have been voiced by civil society organizations and local governments. Cities like Oakland and New Jersey in the USA have been able to limit surveillance and include oversight by the public representatives into the process.
In Pakistan the gravity of the issue seems to be missing from public consciousness and the rules and mechanisms for handling and usage of the gathered information remain opaque. Considering the potential harm that such technologies can do when used by authoritarian regimes and states with poor human rights records, the possibility of having Big Brother or a rogue individual voyeur having eyes and ears everywhere brings to mind the prospects of a dystopian future.
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