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Planes, Trains And E-Scooters: Surveillance State And The End Of Freedom Of Movement

It's impossible to travel incognito on a train, and it's also difficult to walk down the street without running into surveillance cameras. Even when hiking, apps are multiplying. We can't just wander around in anonymity anymore.

Photo of Google Street View car

Google Street View car at Puebla, Puebla, Mexico

Gaspard Koenig


PARIS — A few years ago, I provoked the indignation of many readers when I confessed that I enjoyed using e-scooters in town — a subject obviously more explosive in France than pensions, surrogacy and wind energy combined.

Let them be reassured: I've given up, and even boycott them now. For a simple reason: scooter operators now ask me to scan my ID card to unlock my two-wheeled transport. It seems that many town halls have asked for this measure to be implemented in order to fine those who dangerously slalom through traffic.

It doesn't really matter: there's no way I'm handing over my biometric data to a Californian start-up to move 500 meters up the street.

This sudden policing of scooters, which doesn't seem to raise any eyebrows, is indicative of a worrying trend. The stranglehold of surveillance is closing in on our movements.

Tracking all vehicles in real time

The airplane is, naturally, the most controlled means of transportation in the world.

Since 2019, it is also impossible to take a train incognito. The SNCF, which operates most trains and subways in France, has imposed the nominative ticket on all its lines, including regional trains, despite the contrary opinion of the National Commission for Information Technology & Freedoms (CNIL), the country's data protection agency. Officially nominative tickets were implemented to fight terrorism, more likely to enrich and resell customer files, the last straw for a public company!

As for cars, once symbols of freedom, for the past ten years they have been equipped with integrated GPS systems that cannot be deactivated and whose geolocation data are transmitted directly to the manufacturer.

Since last year, following the request of the European Parliament, they have also been equipped with a black box that permanently records all driving data. If the device is for the time being strictly limited to analyzing accidents, nothing will technically prevent the public authorities from tracking every driver in real time.

There will always be valid reasons to do so: to punish drivers, to warn against bad weather, to limit pollution, and of course to fight against terrorism...

Moving tracelessly

What do we have left? Bicycles? The registration of bicycles has been mandatory since 2021. Walking? Proposals to experiment with facial recognition cameras in urban spaces are multiplying (and have been encouraged by a senatorial report last May).

Even in the countryside, pedestrians are now required by the government to download an app to report themselves to hunters... So I can only think of riding a horse as a way to move around discreetly. In my experience, it might not be impossible, but it is, however, not very convenient.

We are blindly advancing towards a fully gridded world, for which no one will have voted, but to which few will have resisted. In comparison, the fortifications of feudal cities will seem like a libertarian utopia.

Nudge replaces free will and guided interactions replace spontaneous deliberations.

This is not a technological inevitability: on the contrary, digital technology could allow us, through encryption or blockchain, to erase our footprints. This is a political and economic choice.

We thus lose an essential part of our freedom, the freedom to roam our country without being accountable, to travel without leaving any trace, to escape to another place without carrying the burden of our civil status.

Authoritarian regimes and free movement

Montaigne, the French Renaissance philosopher, knew that wandering was important to form a singular spirit. He traveled to escape, preciously preserving his "freedom to come and go" in the midst of the worst calamities of his time. A distant legacy of this humanism, the CNIL is now trying to promote in its views a fundamental right to anonymity in transport.

It is no coincidence that authoritarian regimes have always sought to control movement.

Alas, for lack of a clear legal existence (a tip to our legislators!), this right to anonymity is trampled in the making of public policies by the utilitarian holy trinity: safety, health and comfort.

Alongside this freedom to come and go, the possibility of a citizens' agora also disappears. The end of anonymity signals the crumbling of public space, a melting pot for adventurous wandering and chance encounters. By being identified as an object of surveillance and commerce, we lose our sovereignty as autonomous subjects. Nudge replaces free will and guided interactions replace spontaneous deliberations.

It is no coincidence that authoritarian regimes have always sought to control movement. The workers' passbook was introduced by emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and the identity card was made compulsory by the Vichy regime during World War II.

South Africa introduced internal passports during apartheid and China still imposes the hukou system to restrict the movement of migrant workers. Is this who we want to be like?

Gaspard Koenig is a philosopher and essayist.

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