[A surveillance camera in Barcelona. MANEL LLADÓ.]

[A version of this article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, January 2021.]

“I’m the only foreigner in the Catalan government,” Italian, Francesca Bria used to sometimes say when introducing herself to a public audience. 

In the two years leading up to the pandemic, her team’s work on “digital sovereignty” for people living in the Catalan capital might prove to be as important as others’ efforts on political sovereignty.

A Financial Times article gave her the cringe-inducing title “Barcelona’s Robin Hood of Data” but Bria’s official job name was CTO (Chief Technology Officer) for the city. 

Along with Amsterdam, under Bria’s’ charge, Barcelona was one of the two big cities that ran a pilot program titled DECODE that aimed to “provide tools that put individuals in control of whether they keep their personal data private or share it for the public good.” It was funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Programme.

Invited to take up this position by Mayor Ada Colau, the legal framework her team produced might just have helped prevent the mistakes of other European cities and countries where the rights of citizens are fast being snatched by corporations operating hand in hand with governments and their agencies.

Recent government attempts to authorise drone surveillance by police in France were only barely defeated by public pressure. 

Their use for the so-called public good in the fight against terrorism and to ensure national security came out of the usual conservative arguments that don’t admit that new technology can violate basic human rights. 

With conservatives, the ends always justify the means, except when it hurts the most financially well off in society.

Echoing the history of especially the last 4 years in Catalonia, independent consultant and curator Marta Arniani Marta Arniani (who has worked in the same EU circles as Francesca Bria) said to me, “There have been cases of police beatings and if it’s a case of an individual citizen’s voice against the police, we know where power lies. That’s why it’s very important to [be able] to film the police. This is valid for France, for Catalonia, for Europe. It’s a matter of making these systems accountable. People who work in civil rights, lawyers for example, should be able to access which algorithms and surveillance tools are utilised, for instance through public registries. As emerged in my research for Digital Future Society on the gender dimension of digital welfare , the digitalisation of public services is mostly subcontracted to private companies: there is little know-how and social impact evaluation inside the public bodies, and no oversight from independent observers. Digitalisation should be an occasion to review the bias encoded in our public systems through centuries, so that they can be more inclusive; instead, the dominant solutionist approach is leading to automating inequalities. That’s the title of a very good book, by the way!”

I very much share experts like Marta’s concerns. Police and private drones are already flying with minimal legal restrictions in Barcelona but late last year the Spanish government approved the use of flying air taxis in Barcelona (and Santiago de Compostela; curiously both places being major foreign tourist destinations.)

My first question with this and every proposed legal or technological change is, ”Does it benefit the average person in any way? If not, then who does it benefit and who does it disadvantage?” Expensive helicopter rides only benefit those who can afford them and cause noise and visual pollution for everyone else.

The same basic question needs to be asked about new technology, including “biometric” facial recognition cameras. In my opinion, the answer is similar: the richest 1% (or 5%) of the population are those who gain from it. As usual.

[A version of this article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, January 2021.]

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