The Ranting Kraut

19.3.2006 – 27.9.2010

Another day, another pathetic government initiative…

Posted by rantingkraut on April 5, 2007

It seems that the government really is hell bent on emulating 1984 in all respects. Having plastered the country with a record number of CCTV cameras, the latest INGSOC project aims at equipping more of them with loudspeakers to bark orders at citizens in the street. If that isn’t cringeworthy enough, they are also recruiting kids to whine into the microphone for them.

It is almost unbelievable how closely fact follows fiction here: in the novel not only were public spaces plastered with cameras, but the surveillance equipment did actually talk back –most memorably the one announcing to Winston Smith and his partner that ‘they are the dead’. In the novel too, they recruited children to spy on adults.

When one moves on from the technical detail to focus on the overall tendency to replace civil society by a system of government planning and micro-management the parallels become even more worrying. CCTV apologists tend to argue that these cameras help track criminals down. –They used to argue that they help prevent crime, but that is heard less and less often, for obvious reasons.

At one point, even civil libertarians could have been ambiguous about CCTV surveillance since, cameras do at least record genuine crime and they can document what the police does in public too. Or so one would have thought until de Menezes (video link) got shot and the tape got miraculously erased after being seized by police. If CCTV is meant to keep an eye on all who break the law –including rogue police officers—then the police can’t be allowed to access and handle the evidence at their own discretion. At the moment they seem to do precisely that, so one shouldn’t expect CCTV surveillance to act as a constraint on the police.

This leaves private sector crime and surely, tackling that is a good thing –isn’t it? If you have done nothing wrong you have got nothing to hide –posing the question: who decides what is wrong?

At one point ‘doing wrong’ would have been understood to mean committing a crime such as theft or assault. Yet, under new labour the very concept of crime has been diluted to include all kinds of peaceful political dissent (video link), smoking in a non-authorised place or voicing non-authorised opinions.

The latter can’t yet be picked up by CCTV but if current trends are anything to go by, the microphones will be coming next. One then only needs to consider the fact that due process guarantees have all but disappeared and it should become clear that anyone has plenty to worry about.

Much of the above relates to surveillance cameras as they are. What about the addition of loudspeakers? The social impact of adding remotely operated speakers should not be underestimated. Rather than gathering information which could, at least in principle, be assessed impartially during a fair trial, the government stooge at the end of these things will take snap decisions and bark orders based on what he regards as appropriate. It really is a groundbreaking innovation to the relationship between citizens and state that citizens can be remotely harassed on the basis of accusations they have no opportunity of challenging.

Rather than ‘merely’ being placed under surveillance, citizens who have the audacity to appear in public will now be placed in a situation where an invisible, unidentifiable and therefore unaccountable appointee arbitrarily orders them around.

Advocates of this scheme state that it will correct some anti-social behaviour. It probably will, yet decisions like this should be subject to a cost benefit analysis of some sort. There is probably no innovation that does not have some benefit to somebody somewhere, the question is: does the benefit outweigh the cost—and if it does, is it ethically acceptable?

It is unlikely that speakers will have a lasting effect on crime or anti-social behaviour: those who choose to disrespect their fellow citizens will in time extend their disrespect to the remote controlled voice—even if they are initially caught off guard by it.

The bigger and longer term problem is how this technology relates to the broader decline of civil society. By making the attempted containment of petty crime more dependent on micro-managing people’s lives by government dictat, the root cause of the problem will be exacerbated. The part of civil society that is not in some form subject to government planning is already in danger of extinction. If one now starts conducting routine activities—like walking down the high street—according to step by step instructions of local council officials, what part of civic life will remain in the hands of individual citizens?

In their 1997 third way manifesto, Blair and Schröder proclaimed they wanted a market economy, not a market society. On reading this, Lord Dahrendorf asked: “Do they want a command society?” We now know that they do.

So when—if ever—can surveillance cameras be legitimately used? Video surveillance does have its legitimate uses, but at the very least one should like to see the following conditions satisfied:

1. Public CCTV cameras should be optical recording devices only, i.e. they should not be equipped with speakers/microphones, guns and whatever else the authorities care to think of.

2. Crimes should as a rule be narrowly defined as violations of the non-aggression principle.

3. Full due process guarantees should be restored and maintained, and

4. The evidence gathered should hold all—including the police—accountable.

With these guarantees in place, I would be less concerned about these things; but even then they should be deployed with some restraint and even then one would need to ask if there isn’t a better way to fight crime. How likely are cameras to be operated within such a framework? Not very, and so long as they are run by a government having the array of arbitrary powers the UK government currently has anyone concerned about individual liberty would do well to simply oppose any extension of surveillance.

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