Against the backdrop of the September Westgate attack and the fiasco that ensued after, one discovers more questions and murk than answers.


Against the backdrop of the September Westgate attack and the fiasco that ensued after, one discovers more questions and murk than answers. A casual observer, watching as events unfold from their television screen is at loss telling the difference between the grotesque images that stream from his screen and the antics of Jack Bauer of the TV series 24.The terrorist stomp into the mall shooting, leaving a trail of carnage culminating with a hostage scenario that last 4 days.

The images that greet the nation after the ordeal only raise more questions as to what happened in the mall. We do trust and respect our intelligence and security forces yet hard questions still come to mind.
Looking back one wonders if the debacle would have been averted or minimized with more digital monitoring through Closed-circuit television (CCTV) and other technological gizmos that engineering and technology has availed us. If there was a live feed from the mall, would the tactical teams that rescued people have an upper hand in the duel with the terrorists? If we had a second to second motion picture account would we be in doubt of the details of the occurrences? Like; how many the attackers were? Was there a woman amongst them? Did they torture hostages? Was there looting amidst the rescuing? And a myriad questions more.

We live in a surveillance society. It is pointless to talk about surveillance society any more in the future tense. HG wells and George Orwell did that already in their visionary works of literature then fiction now reality. In all countries everyday life is suffused with surveillance encounters, not merely when you step from your door step but all round the clock. Some encounters obtrude into the routine, like when a speed camera catches you on the highway over speeding yet the majority is subtle, just part of the fabric of daily life like cookies when surfing the net.

State surveillance promises preemptive and effective solutions when it comes to tackling terrorism. These technologies not only deter criminals but also give incisive and decisive information that helps security agencies tackle crimes. In advanced societies mass surveillance has been the modus operandi. The appearance of numerous CCTVs along the main streets of Nairobi and on the traffic entry points like Haile Selassie round about must at least raise the possibility of mass surveillance finding its way into Kenya. Stopping terrorism and crimes has always been the main vindication for mass surveillance. With incessant threats from Al-Shabaab mass surveillance can only increase.

CCTV technologies as the major way to gather data involve the use of video cameras to transmit a signal to a specific place, on a limited set of monitors. They are used for surveillance in areas that may need monitoring such as banks, casinos, airports, military installations, and convenience stores. Currently they attract wider usage on streets, parks, offices and other public places. Britain is the country most watched with about five million surveillance cameras approximately one for every dozen people

The genesis of modern mass surveillance can be traced back to an English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century; He came up with a radical idea to help manage the correctional facilities, the Panopticon. 

Panopticon is a multi-disciplinary project; the arts must conceive it and the men of science actualize it.
Bentham believed he had the means to make people behave better– the more we are watched, the better we behave. This led to the idea of big brother’s all Seeing Eye as envisaged by Orwell in his Magnus opus 1984.

For the structural design, Bentham envisaged circular prisons of 5–6 stories, with cells along the circumference. Erected in the centre of the prison would be a tower from which the prison inspectors could gaze out – but the prisoners could not see in giving the observer an aura of omnipresence.
The prisoner could not know when they were being watched and had to assume that they were being watched all the time and they could be. In the Panopticon, Bentham saw an exercise in ‘obtaining power of mind over mind.’
In his enduring letters to his father in England from White Russia modern day Belarus in the late 18th Century he says:

“Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated instruction diffused – public burthens lightened – Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock – the Gordian knot of the Poor-Laws are not cut, but untied – all by a simple idea in Architecture!-Thus much I ventured to say on laying down the pen – and thus much I should perhaps have said on taking it up, if at that early period I had seen the whole of the way before me. A new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example: and that, to a degree equally without example, secured by whoever chooses to have it so, against abuse. – Such is the engine: such the work that may be done with it. How far the expectations thus held out have been fulfilled, the reader will decide.”
The idea structurally of a Panopticon was adopted for the development of several correctional facilities including Presidio Modelo in Cuba {constructed 1926–28}.

Fast forward into the 21st century it’s not a question of if we are going to be monitored, we only have the minor details of how and to what extent. With technology giving the powers that be more abilities that even Bentham could not conceive in his best of dreams we no longer need circular structured prisons. We can be monitored real time from miles away all the time and the data analyzed and stored for posterity.

Ten years ago anyone telling me the Kenyan government would monitor all the forty million of us would have left me in stitches. With the dawn and prevalence of smart phones on everyone, CCTV in the malls and streets, Speed cameras on the highways, Digital TV sets,  ipads and all the other technologies it’s not only inevitable but it’s on.
My only concern is, will they do it right?

Elsewhere in the world and affecting us; data is multiplying exponentially and technology is inexorably advancing, the question is not whether an all-encompassing surveillance system will be deployed. The question is how, when, how many and how intrusive on liberty.
In the absence of settled laws and norms, the role of engineers looms large. They will shoulder much of the burden of designing and installing the systems in ways that limit the damage to the general populace while maximizing the pressures on the criminals it seeks to deter.

Where do the responsibilities of ­engineers begin and end?
This is a question challenging in its immensity and hard to tackle conclusively.

Machines will be designed to collect, index and analyze data. Will they also be given the task of arresting and charging the offenders? Seems like a long shot but with the breakthroughs in robotics and the speed at which technology moves it’s not.
Will it be best to design these surveillance systems so that humans go through the data before any harmful actions are taken?
If people want to spy on one another, since its inevitable say a cheating spouse(s), what rules and limitations will we need? How will we keep terrorists and others bent on injurious actions from accessing and using the immense data?
What explicit standards do we adopt for engineers, code writers, and designers who contribute significantly to the creation of these panopticons?
Engineers creating responsible projects do not guarantee that some other people with access will not use the project for some other depraved purposes. Most inventions by well meaning individual always find their way to use in wars and some other acts of aggression and subversion as was the case with the airplane and nuclear energy.

According to the Post, United States researchers are trying to create an automated system that would detect objects and events, understand them and then classify them by category and index them. It also would be able to browse through and retrieve data from different sources. The Video Analysis and Content Extraction (VACE) effort is an effort being run under the Office of Incisive Analysis which is part of the United States government’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA). Soon these systems will be able to react to situations.

To contemplate surveillance in modern society is to choose an angle, a way of conceptualizing our contemporary world. It is to throw into sharp relief not only the daily encounters, but the massive surveillance systems that now underpin modern existence. It is not just that CCTV may capture our image or the mobile operator has intimate details of our lives at their finger tips. It is that these systems represent a basic, complex infrastructure which assumes that gathering and processing personal data is imperative to modernity. Is this not impertinent?

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