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British People Have Become the Most Watched & Recorded on Earth

Surveillance Cameras - Quevaal
Big Brother systems watch each UK citizen 3,000 times and record over 3,000 pieces of personal information, every week.

These figures were unearthed by the Daily Telegraph in August 2008, and on one level are strangely reassuring – more cameras (one for every 10 people) should mean less crime. Channel 4 News estimated in 2004, Britain had 4 million public and private cameras, 20% of the global total. However, more crime is being committed, so are Brits being watched to meet other agendas?

When people feel watched by eyes on posters (like recently at the rail station in Brighton, England), the effect is beneficial. When motorists see a cardboard cut-out of a police car at a roadside, they reduce speed instinctively.

Either way, watching eyes, real or through lenses, are an eerie reminder of George Orwell’s post-war warning, Nineteen Eighty-Four, which created the notion of Big Brother, Room 101 (where people face their greatest fears) and Thought-crime.

Surveillance Unlimited, Inspired by Literature

According to Keith Laidler in his 2008 book, Surveillance Unlimited, not only are we seeing Orwell’s nightmare coming to fruition, it’s an uncaring bureaucratic machine prone to uncorrectable mistakes with dreadful consequences for individuals, in echoes of another classic, The Trial, as envisioned in 1925 by Franz Kafka.

A third classic fiction worth citing is Aldous Huxley’s 1931, Brave New World, the title taken from Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest. In the novel, high-tech consumer lifestyles make people ever more dependent on drug-fuelled quick fixes, which They allow citizens to enjoy when They decide they shall be enjoyed.

Everyone’s grown accustomed to the government of the day listening to messages, phone and internet activity around the globe, to keep the land secure from enemies, from terrorists and organised crime. But, in the name of anti-terrorism now, (just like in the name of anti-Nazism in the 1930s and 40s, and the name of anti-communism from 1940s to the 90s), almost any act of monitoring, watching, judging what people do and say, is sanctioned.

Laidler examines systems for watching and storing data from mobile phone location systems, dataveillance, electronic communications interception, communications data traffic analysis, RFID chips, web cookies, Automatic Number Plate Recognition, Identity Card databases, biometrics, CCTV surveillance and sousveillance, which is recording from the perspective of participants in an activity, like police helmet cameras.

He also looks at the way supermarkets and the private sector routinely gather and store data to improve future profitability and direct marketing. Information from electoral roles, postcodes, shopping habits using loyalty cards, credit card and other purchases logged in the name of anti-ID fraud… the list goes on. Most accept much of this as inevitable, and some of it actually improves their lifestyles.

Fighting Back

Some people fight back against speeding fines triggered by hidden cameras; against revealing more personal information than is essential to conduct one’s daily business in Britain. That’s applauded in some quarters as a brave stand, but laws now enable police to intervene where they suspect crimes might be committed, where people expressing an opinion can be accused of inciting hatred or violence in others, or where people cannot take photos deemed to be a ‘danger’.

However, as much surveillance is covert, it’s impossible to combat. If a person’s car is tracked on satellite, his/her face recognised automatically by camera, his/her emails and phone calls monitored, every website he/she visits logged and even his/her mobile phone switched off still reveals his/her whereabouts – how can anybody avoid being watched?

Life Imitating Art

The Steven Spielberg 2002 movie, Minority Report, loosely based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, features a specialised police unit called Precrime which captures criminals before they commit any crime using foreknowledge from psychics. The jump to using predictive behaviour based on past and present activity to take ‘future criminals’ out of our society is not as fanciful as it sounds, if all the data held on each individual is pooled.

As the tendency to merge bigger, more detailed systems, to acquire and hold ever more information, from health and education/training/work records, to how much rubbish we throw out, to driving/buying/fiscal/tax history, to entertainment/relationship/food preferences to biometric identity takes hold, then the science fiction may become the norm.

Information is not only of interest to governments and their agencies, but equally to criminals. Knowledge has always represented power, and all that accumulated data is so powerful that nobody can be confident it’s secure. In November 2007, the British Government had to admit losing names, birthdates, addresses, child benefit, national insurance numbers and bank account details of 25 million citizens.

It wasn’t the only security breach. No system is fool-proof. So what price must humanity pay for non-criminal private and personal activities in lives? The 2010 General Election will probably not be discussing that question.

Sources:

  • Surveillance Unlimited: How We’ve Become the Most Watched People on Earth by Keith Laidler, published by Icon Books, May 2008. ISBN 978-184046877-9

First published on Suite 101, 8th April 2010.

Photo: Surveillance Cameras – Quevaal

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