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The Birth of Big Brother

Two surveillance cameras

They're watching you. But who's watching them?

The Birth of Big Brother

(This article hasn't yet been published. If anyone would like to publish it, please email me.)

Few of us will have failed to notice the increasing numbers of police cameras, be they speed cameras on our roads or surveillance cameras in our towns. If we think about them at all, we may even feel vaguely reassured that criminals and dangerous drivers can now be brought to book, but are these cameras all they're cracked up to be and, more worryingly, what does the future hold for electronic law enforcement?

The police seem to erect more cameras every week, and most town centres now have cameras at strategic points. This in itself is a departure from traditional policing methods. The British tradition is for a visible police presence, with officers in uniform and wearing numbers so they can be identified. Now, however, there is no reassuring presence of the familiar helmeted bobby, no friendly face to turn to for help or informal advice. Now there's just the pole with the camera on it. You can't even tell whether the police are monitoring that camera, so there's no reassurance that if there's trouble the police will know about it, and you can't tell what they're focussed on. You wouldn't stand for a policeman staring you closely in the face, (or in the case of women, at other parts of their anatomy), but through the lens of the camera they now can, and you won't even know about it.

The police, of course, claim that the cameras are there for our safety, but will they help? Serious crime won't be prevented by the presence of a camera, as the criminals will just wear masks. Banks have had security cameras for years, but they still get robbed. Street violence is unlikely to be reduced, as most violence is the result of drink, when reason goes out of the window anyway. Some people may even play up to the cameras out of bravado in the way that I have known them play up to policemen. One only has to look at the antics of some of the people standing behind interviewees on the television to understand that sort of behaviour. Criminals and yobs are unlikely to curb their activities because of the presence of cameras. At best, they will simply transfer them to other areas where there are no cameras, so the overall level of crime and anti-social behaviour won't be significantly affected. All that will happen is that normal law-abiding people will be under constant police surveillance. To make things worse any human frailties or lapses caught on camera can be (and regularly are) sold to television and video companies for public amusement. The money presumably pays for the erection of even more cameras.

Speed Cameras

On the roads speed cameras, and the in-vehicle speed limiters which are currently fitted to lorries and coaches and will soon be fitted to cars, are further examples of the authorities using electronics to enforce conformity with their rules, whether or not those rules are right, or whether they make matters worse. For example, the biggest cause of motorway accidents is driver fatigue. Driving a speed-limited vehicle on a motorway is extremely fatiguing, and when speed limiters were fitted to lorries the number of lorry drivers killed in road accidents shot up by 24%. Most drivers drive at a reasonable speed for the circumstances, using the speed limits as a guide, following the old dictum that "rules are for the guidance of wise men and the blind obedience of fools". This, however, isn't good enough for the growing army of bureaucrats. "They're not doing what we tell them", they think, "We must force them to comply".

In one case in my area recently, a survey said that in one road 92% of drivers were exceeding the speed limit, although they didn't say by how much. Any law broken by 92% of the population smacks of bad law, and in any other area of law that level of law-breaking would lead to the law being changed, (the Poll Tax was repealed partly as a result of a level of disobedience much lower than 92%). In the realm of motoring, however, it simply leads to calls for cameras to enforce what the overwhelming majority of drivers clearly regard as bad law. It used to be widely believed that speed limits were set 10mph below what they actually wanted drivers to do, but they are now enforcing limits which by that standard are 10 mph too low. Sweden was experimenting with a system where speed limiters could be re-set during the course of a journey by roadside transmitters, taking all responsibility from drivers. This approach, however, does nothing to improve driving standards, just rigidly enforces limits which some bureaucrat has decided is permissible, and which may at times be lower than can be safe, and at other times can be much higher than is safe.

A police officer has discretion, and if he's doing his job properly will report non-specific examples of dangerous driving whilst disregarding technical breaches of the law which don't pose a danger. A camera, however, only enforces one simple rule, and will ignore dangerous driving as long as it doesn't exceed the parameter the camera is set for, whilst diligently reporting all minor breaches of its single rule whether dangerous or not. Automated law enforcement is therefore the exact opposite of the approach of the sensible police officer. The camera flashes, a civilian checks the registration number and obtains the owner's details from a computer, and sends out the ticket. (The latest versions send the picture digitally to a central computer, which reads the number plate for itself, obtains the owner's details and sends the ticket. Until the owner opens the envelope containing the ticket, no human being on the planet knows anything about it.) No-one asks whether there was any danger, and now the police have cameras doing their job for them they won't be there to catch the genuine dangerous drivers.

The police seem to be increasingly becoming a self-serving bureaucracy, losing the fight against crime and other things which matter to most people, and in some cases they seem to be losing interest as well, concentrating their attentions on easy targets, especially motorists. Indeed, for some time one of the things on which probationary constables are judged has been the number of motoring offences reported. At least one Chief Constable has called for police forces to be allowed to keep the money raised from fines on motorists, raising the possibility of motorists becoming a source of revenue to make up shortfalls, or to protect the overtime budget. Electronic methods, able to detect and prosecute every minor breach of motoring law, whether dangerous or not, will make that easier.

Picture removed for copyright reasons Whether they're driving dangerously or not, the speed camera will report every driver who exceeds the speed limit. Speed limits, whether justified or not, can now be totally enforced. Drivers can now be terrorised into obeying the law, no matter how bad the law is. No more "policing by consent", now it's "YOU WILL OBEY"! And, of course, every time the camera flashes the driver pays another 60 in tax. No wonder the bureaucrats like cameras!

Identity Cards

Of course it can be argued that this only affects drivers, indeed only those drivers who have committed an offence, albeit a minor one, but the equipment already in use could be the thin end of an extremely large wedge. The continuing move towards electronic law enforcement poses a threat to the civil liberties of all of us, and the next step towards electronic control of the population will come in the form of compulsory identity cards.

Ideally only criminals are policed, insofar as they are the only ones who should be subjected to police attention. The rest of the population who are more or less law-abiding should have no contact with the police, and should not be spied upon. In a free society there is no need for the police to know, or be able to ascertain, our whereabouts, but once the principle of ID cards is established they can be replaced with so-called "smart" cards, of the sort used in the modern generation of gas payment meters or to record the points earned in petrol promotions. These smart cards can be used to contain more and more information about us, for example criminal records, police suspicions, medical history and so on. The cards may even be able to transmit, like anti-shoplifting tags in some large stores. As these tags pass through a loop at the store's exit an electromagnetic field generates a current in the tag, which the tag then uses to transmit a signal back to the loop. This principle could be easily adapted to create an ID card capable of transmitting.

In its simplest form the transmitting ID card would make it easy to catch people who aren't carrying their card. If the system detected a person, perhaps by sensing a heat source, but no ID card signal, it could alert the police, even turning surveillance cameras to find them. The cameras on our motorways are already linked to sensors which detect stationary traffic, and automatically point themselves towards suspected blockages. We may be forced to wear our tags rather than carry them, perhaps in the form of discs on our temples like the characters played by Farrah Fawcett and Kirk Douglas in the film Saturn 3. Ultimately the tags could even be under our skin. You can already have a cylinder half an inch long and about a sixteenth of an inch in diameter inserted under the skin of your pet. This cylinder contains a microchip which, when scanned, transmits the animal's ID number. Similar devices under the skin of each of us, coupled with a network of monitoring stations in our towns and along our roads would enable the police or even employers to trace people at any time or keep continuous track of their movements. The cellphone network can find a phone in seconds anywhere in Europe and across many other parts of the world, and you can now buy a system to fit to lorries which can track them by satellite to within twenty feet. There is no reason to suppose that the same principles could not be applied to track us.

"Salami Tactics"

This technology would, of course, be used initially to track the movements of criminals. It would probably start with a group for whom there is little or no public sympathy, for example child molesters, so there would be no public concern about invasion of civil liberties, but once the principle is established it will lead by "salami tactics" (one thin slice at a time) to all persons convicted of offences. After that it will be persons suspected of anything. The police don't just hold information on convicted criminals. In the name of "Intelligence" they keep any information, associations and suspicions which they think might come in useful in the future. This can be anything which the police regard as outside the norm. The police don't work on the same principle of the rest of the justice system, i.e. "Innocent until proven guilty", their principle is more akin to "Guilty until we have to accept that we don't currently have enough evidence to charge". This could easily lead to people who have never committed an offence being electronically tracked.

The police, of course, will claim that this will prevent crime, catch criminals, protect children, etc. These are, of course, entirely desirable aims, but some level of crime is the price of freedom. Crime could be almost eliminated by having police officers on every street corner with powers to stop and search everyone, and road accidents could be all but wiped out by enforcing a blanket 10mph limit, but would we want that?

Political Dissent - the European Union and MI5

As well as criminals, the State may apply this technology to political dissidents. Members of dissident groups may be tracked, and the system could even notify the police if certain people get together. If the European Union fulfils its ambition to be the State it will regard anyone expressing anti-EU feelings as a legitimate target. This would almost certainly include members of the UK Independence Party, Referendum Party, and any members of the Labour and Conservative Parties who have voiced doubts about the desirability of our continued membership of this expensive club. MI5 already infiltrates the National Front to gain information and try to destabilise it, and whatever one thinks of the NF they are a legitimate political party which fields candidates, quite lawfully, at elections. What other "enemies of the State" will be kept under surveillance with all the new technology which will be available? They may not even be enemies of the State, just of the ruling Party, as happened in the Watergate conspiracy. Most worryingly of all, they may be groups whom the security forces themselves have decided to attack, as is alleged to have happened to the Wilson government in the sixties.

We have to be careful that we don't build a system which can be used against us in the future, if an undemocratic power seizes control or a democratically elected power becomes undemocratic. What would Himmler's Gestapo have been able to do if this technology had been available in 1933?

A Nightmare World

The scenario I have described may seem far-fetched, but the technology already exists. The cameras are already in our streets. Speed limiters are already fitted to lorries and will soon be in our cars. Many of our roads have speed cameras. Most of us have at least one smart card, and security tags are in use in our supermarkets. Even the silicon chip implants are available at your local vet's for around 25. The technology only needs to be made cheaper, smaller, or more powerful for all the things I have described to become possible. All that is then needed is the will on the part of the politicians, civil servants or police to make it happen. The changes will happen gradually, each one with what look like good reasons, but our civil liberties and right to privacy will be slowly eroded. We have to make a stand against the growth of a police state, otherwise we will one day find ourselves in a nightmare world where we are electronically controlled by the state. Big Brother will at last be watching us.

Copyright 1999 Chris Lamb

Pole-mounted camera

Say hello to the nice policeman...

Worried? You ain't seen nuthin' yet! Visit Watching Them, Watching Us, the website of the UK CCTV Surveillance Regulation Campaign. (But don't read it if you want to sleep tonight...)

The images on this page are from the Watching Them Watching Us site and are reproduced with permission.

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