17. Surveillance

Where on this surreal planet is surveillance taking us?
Some three generations ago Aldous Huxley in Brave New World and George Orwell in 1984 vividly described nightmarish alternatives which their readers might face in the future. Their warnings and predictions had impact — but these visionaries never imagined mobile phones, computers, nor the internet.

Today’s authors are not providing us with vistas of what surveillance might look like a few decades hence. Will entire populations be tracked? And to what effect or purpose? Perhaps future generations simply won’t give a damn.

A while back I had a nightmare in which I was being interrogated by intrusive intelligence agents trying to read my mind via needle-like probes inserted into my brain. Initially I was enormously disturbed during this dream because I recognized that my most secret thoughts could be read, but then I rationalized that these agents would never be able to decode my ability to create new secret thoughts! The secret of my creativity would remain intact. This was a most comforting revelation: the core of my being would remain mine alone. End of dream. Perhaps in the future micro-chips will be introduced enabling all kinds of transmissions to take place to and from the brain. That truly will be one micro-leap into BigBrotherLand.

The era into which we have plunged unwittingly over the past two decades is one of increasingly intrusive overt and covert surveillance. The new spy cameras already in operation can pick out a face in a crowd half a mile away. Cameras as small as our finger nails are being developed which will make it possible to capture images without being seen or noticed. Our consent will not be asked: the privacy of our encounters will be eroded as we are being recorded in different ways.

When I complain that the swift advance of surveillance technology itself is overwhelming our ability to manage the complex attendant challenges, critics retort that the history of technology shows there is always opposition at first and, as Guttenberg’s press illustrates, no one can predict the ultimate social consequences of new inventions.

In a concerted governmental effort to reduce crime and increase protection against terrorism, the UK has spent more than a billion pounds ($1.5 billion) in capital funding for the development of CCTV. The result is that there are 6 million CCTV cameras in operation in the UK — about one for every 12 inhabitants.  Only one in twenty of these are to aid the police. Most are used in shopping malls, schools, offices, factories, airports, rail stations, and hospitals. The UK has become the most advanced surveillance society in the world with little understanding of how this will affect all those subjected!

There have been positive results from surveillance: street crime is down, fewer banks are robbed, and even classrooms in the school system suffer from less disruption. There are also great benefits to be had in providing diagnostics in old age homes where the well-being of the residents demand round-the-clock watch by monitor systems. Similarly, monitoring babies through such CCTV cameras is welcomed.

Worrying, however, is the unregulated and ad hoc introduction of CCTV. Indeed, there is not even a clear idea how different private and public CCTV groups can coordinate their resources to best resolve the desired ends.1

In the United States the war against terrorism has been used as justification for the ever increasing numbers of CCTV. Some 78 per cent of  Americans polled by CBS News/New York Times said that having more surveillance cameras, which remain relatively rare on American streets, was “a good idea.” Their responses came after private CCTV footage from a local shop helped the FBI identify the Tsarnaev brothers who killed three people and wounded more than 200 at the Boston Marathon. Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, said soon after this that the bombings were “a terrible reminder” of why investing in “camera technology” could be essential in preventing future attacks.

Surveillance made its appearance well before 2011 or even Big Brother. Optical surveillance was popularized more than 200 years ago by Jeremy Bentham, the English philosopher (founder the school of Utilitarianism) and prison reformer who designed the model of the famed “Panopticon.” This was based on his belief that if the prison inmates thought they were being watched from a central control tower, they would refrain from violence.

It is most ironic that 200 years later Britain’s prisons are one of the rare places without CCTV even though there is a great deal of violence behind the walls. The prison staff don’t want to be held responsible for all the wrong-doing on their watch. The former Inspector of Prisons in the UK, Lord Ramsbotham, told me that the reason there is no CCTV in Britain’s prisons was that the wardens would go on strike if efforts to do so were ever made to install such cameras by lawmakers.

The arguments ranged against CCTV generally are weak, abstract and emotional as compared to the solid law and order arguments of the CCTV industry and governments.  Psychologists tend to point out that the inevitable effects of the growth of surveillance will be to make us, who are being watched, more self-aware and self-conscious. At the same time, “People tend to like CCTV well enough in a public place where it makes them feel protected. But a camera trained on  their front gate feels like an invasion of privacy, even if that privacy cloaks nothing more than regular, legitimate comings and goings.”2

My own perspective on the rapidly evolving surveillance scene is that we are rushing headlong without examining the ramifications or the unintended consequences which our progeny will have to face. Government representatives on both sides of the Atlantic tend to dismiss warnings of Big Brother voiced by libertarians. Author David Brin, analyzing the situation, suggests that we should “adapt with resilience” to the unprecedented intrusions of surveillance in the years ahead.3 Adapt? To unwarranted unwanted and threatening intrusions? Better to resist, block and undermine unauthorized and excessive government surveillance. Before passively adapting, would it not be preferable to examine and debate the serious challenges that surveillance now presents?

1See http://www.le.ac.uk/oerresources/criminology/msc/unit8/
2“Deborah Orr, “Is domestic violence a private matter because there’s no CCTV at home? The Guardian, July 13, 2013, p.29
3David Brin, “If you can’t hide from Big Brother, adapt,” The International Herald Tribune, July 25, 2013

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3 thoughts on “17. Surveillance

  1. And let’s not forget digital surveillance in the form of Facebook, Twitter, Myspace etc. The fact that people are now being prosecuted for things that they have written on their Facebook and Twitter pages (like this famous case http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twitter_Joke_Trial) which surely is but hair’s breadth away from Thought Crime, means that surveillance slipped into our homes long ago and we didn’t even notice. Even Orwell couldn’t have predicted how readily and frequently we would divulge all our innermost secrets to the Telescreens.

  2. Let’s not also forget ‘digital surveillance’ in the form of Facebook, Twitter etc. I find it terrifying that people are already being prosecuted for things that they have said in jest on their Facebook and Twitter pages (such as this famous example http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twitter_Joke_Trial) which is surely but a hair’s breadth away from Thought Crime. Even Orwell couldn’t have predicted that when we finally welcomed Telsecreens into our homes we would so readily and regularly divulge to them our innermost thoughts and feelings

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