Browsing Facebook I came across a post from my local police force asking the public for help in identifying a suspect. The details of what the individual was wanted in connection with were left tantalisingly ambiguous, with wrongdoing only being suggested as they were ‘a person of interest’ wanted in relation to an ‘incident’. The most immediately striking aspect of the post was that the image was of such a low resolution that I doubt even a close family member would be able to identify them which led me to consider what the intentions of the police were – was this a case of sloppy amateurism or something else?
A quick look through the comments on the post amused me as most responders made fun of how bad the image was. Pressing the hashtag #personsofinterest brought up a whole series of further posts in a similar vein and my mood began to change from amused to troubled – how ethical was it for the police to attempt to identify people this way? It seemed that each of the people featured were at best suspects that had not been charged with anything, potentially ‘outing’ them in this way could damage anyone identified significantly. Even if they were guilty of something, how could it be right that they are portrayed as such without some sort of due process? The quality of the images was so poor that incorrect identification could be a strong possibility – indeed, many comments alluded to this as friends were tagged in jest.
I am unsure if there is any potential use for these except for making me think about the nature of surveillance, law enforcement and all of the connected issues and ethics involved. It also made me consider how much we are unknowingly filmed and photographed each day and how this could potentially be used to control – it is not so much of a stretch to think that we are at a point in everyday surveillance that makes the controlling principles of the Panopticon a reality. These images are so poor that the intentions of the police in showing them have to be questioned – is it such a leap to believe that the aim is not to catch the people in them at all but to make a wider suggestion to the population that any illegal activity could lead to their image being shared on social media? Is this crime prevention by stealth that makes everyone consider the consequences of any potential actions before engaging in them? Or, is this simply a way for the police to demonstrate to law abiding citizens that they are engaged in bringing wrong doers to justice? Perhaps there is a more pragmatic reality that due to funding cuts the police need are using every tool at their disposable to detect criminals and this is a particularly easy way of achieving this.