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 title was CTO (Chief Technology Officer) for the city. Along with Amsterdam, under Brias’ charge, Barcelona was one of the two big cities that ran a pilot programme 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 four years in Catalonia, consultant and curator at “Futuribile” Marta Arniani (who has worked with 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. One way this could be done is that people who work in civil rights, lawyers for example, should be able to access which algorithms and surveillance tools are utilised so there’s public registries. What is happening today is they launch a public procurement process, a private company installs the technology but there’s no real knowledge inside the public bodies, most of the time. There’s no independent validation. We have the idea that we can apply technology to solve problems but it just reiterates them because it’s based on biased or incomplete data and ends up “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.

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