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School of Law

AI in surveillance: how do we avoid a dystopia?

Daragh Murray

Reader in Political Theory

As the technological landscape evolves, Artificial Intelligence now has unprecedented influence over our lives - employment, housing, finances and even parole decisions. Queen Mary University of London’s Daragh Murray raises an important question on the unintended consequences: how might AI-driven decision-making shape societal behaviour and democratic processes?

The increased use of AI systems for decision-making, reliant on extensive data collection, is likely to lead to unintended consequences. Pervasive surveillance influences people to modify their daily activities, impeding societal norms and democratic principles. This potential alteration of individuals' behaviours is commonly known as the chilling effect.

two CCTV cameras on a grey wall

The primary research question centres on understanding these chilling effects of surveillance on individuals' behaviours and societal dynamics. Daragh is investigating the impact of surveillance practices on personal and professional lives, political engagement and trust within communities. The study aims to bridge the gap between theoretical discussions on chilling effects and empirical evidence by conducting comprehensive interviews with individuals subjected to surveillance.

The research employs semi-structured interviews to delve into the nuanced experiences and perceptions of individuals affected by surveillance. By adopting a qualitative approach, the study seeks to capture diverse perspectives across different contexts and societal actors. Initially focusing on police surveillance, the research intends to expand its scope to encompass governmental and corporate surveillance practices. This multi-contextual approach enhances the understanding of chilling effects and their implications for societal behaviour.

It's really important that we get ahead of the curve, that we understand what the impact of technology is before we deploy it so that we don't unintentionally sleepwalk into a dystopian future.
— Daragh Murray

Initial findings reveal a profound impact of surveillance on participants' lives, characterised by a pervasive erosion of trust within personal relationships and communities. Daragh has seen a reluctance among individuals to engage in political activities, constraining freedom of expression and undermining collective mobilisation efforts. Participants express concerns about the erosion of democratic values and the stifling of societal progress due to these surveillance practices.

The absence of robust frameworks for evaluating the trade-offs between surveillance benefits and human rights implications presents a significant challenge. In light of the findings, Daragh advocates for cautious deployment of mass surveillance tools, recommending a moratorium on certain practices (such as police use of facial recognition) until comprehensive studies have been carried out. This needs to be approached carefully in order to safeguard democratic principles and preserve our freedoms in an AI-driven society.

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