Civic spaces are the digital and real-life settings where people gather to spend time together, formulate ideas, discuss them with others and groups. In civic spaces, people can also raise dissenting views, consider possible reforms, expose bias and corruption, as well as, organise to advocate for political, economic, social, environmental, and cultural change. Civic spaces include public streets, squares, and parks, as well as digital spheres including the Internet, messaging apps, and social media platforms.

Public authorities, including police and intelligence agencies, are already capable of conducting generalised, invisible, real-time surveillance of civic spaces, from a distance, without people knowing or consenting. They are able to extract information on a widespread scale from these civic spaces, and then create granular, searchable archives of the people who participate in them.

What is the problem?

Civic spaces, where we are free to develop, protest and preserve our integrity and autonomy, are increasingly under threat as new surveillance technologies are radically transforming the ability of authorities to monitor those spaces.

These technologies pose a serious risk of abuse by public authorities, as they can chill and violate peoples’ exercise of fundamental freedoms and rights. They often disproportionately exclude some groups from civic spaces and ultimately allow and may even amplify discrimination.

They are often being used in legal and a regulatory vacuum and there is not enough transparency or public input into how surveillance technologies can, should, or are being used.

What is the solution?

The right to privacy supports other fundamental rights and freedoms of democratic societies, including: the right to equal participation in political and public affairs, and the freedoms of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly, and association. Privacy creates spaces for people to develop and debate ideas and exercise these rights and freedoms.

The purchase, use, and scope of these surveillance technologies should be explicitly prescribed by clear and precise laws and limited to the means necessary and proportionate to achieving legitimate aims.

Mass surveillance, including mass collection of peoples’ data from civic spaces, cannot satisfy the requirements of necessity and proportionality. Any targeted surveillance measures, including in public spaces, must be necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim, such as preventing or investigating serious crimes.

For the public to be assured there is no risk of government abuse, there must be greater transparency and accountability around the government’s use of surveillance technologies, as well as adequate safeguards and effective oversight around the trial, purchase, and use of surveillance technologies.

Among others to allow for greater protection of peoples’ data, the government should support the development and use of encryption. The government should be prohibited from requiring corporations to engineer vulnerabilities in products or services that would undermine peoples’ privacy and security.

What is PI doing about it?

PI is working to ensure new technologies are governed and used in ways that protect our privacy, preserve our civic spaces, and support democracy.

PI is engaged in advocacy, research, campaigns, strategic litigation, technical analysis, and work with partners in our Global Network to: