Surveillance Society

15 February 2008

The revelation that a conversation between the Labour MP Sadiq Khan and one of his constituents was bugged by police was greeted with outrage by the media. This in itself is scarcely remarkable – outrage being the reaction de rigueur of the media circus to many less than startling developments – but in this case the disapproval was misplaced. It is possible, perhaps even advisable, to regard the matter in a positive light. There is something morbidly gratifying, after all, about the fact that it is not just we the public whose every move is automatically viewed with a deep suspicion by the authorities.

‘Viewed’ is the operative word. Though commonly quoted, it is still shocking to realise that the average UK citizen is caught on camera three hundred times a day. There are few things at which Britain excels, but when it comes to surveillance we’re up there with the big boys. The monitoring organisation Privacy International (the name betrays an agenda, admittedly, but the point still stands) have bestowed upon Britain the worst record in Europe for surveillance levels. We can now boast membership of an exclusive coterie of ‘endemic surveillance societies’ which also includes such bastions of democracy and free thinking as Russia and China. Needless to say, our special friend across the pond has made the grade as well.

It would be perverse to deny that CCTV has many benefits. As a means of detection of crime it has proved invaluable in cases such as the London bombings of 2005 and the James Bulger murder. Without surveillance, traffic would verge on the uncontrollable, private property would be endangered, and – perish the thought – the gritty social satire and cultural gem that is Big Brother would never have graced our screens.

And yet, seriously, what price are we paying for these so-called safety measures? In 2006 253,000 intrusions on citizen privacy were demanded, and almost invariably granted, by 800 different organisations which ranged from the police to the revenue to local governments. In the same year, over a nine month period, the Home Secretary issued 1337 ‘bugging’ warrants. It is facetious and patronising to claim that we live in a police state. Clearly, we do no such thing. And yet we must be alert to the fact that we are being dragged, apparently inexorably, towards a world in which even Oyster cards can be used for investigating people’s movements and in which a government whip’s shady past as a civil rights lawyer is cited as a reason for bugging his conversations.

In 1961 the first CCTV camera was put in place in a London railway station. Today, we are watched by approximately 15.5m such cameras nationwide. Not only watched, but followed, recorded, identified, and even scolded. In 2005, Middlesbrough – where else? – saw the implementation of ‘Talking CCTV’, another one of the government’s whimsical little gimmicks designed to slowly dredge away our freedom. Privacy must not become national security’s pound of flesh. In 1994 the Home Office issued a report entitled “CCTV: Looking Out For You”, but in reality living in an ‘endemic surveillance society’ is no Neighbourhood Watch. Blair’s mantra that “9/11 changed everything” is a cowardly excuse for the government’s failure to resist, not the terrorist threat, but the demands of our own security hawks. Liberty is not a finite product; the ruthless exportation of it abroad which we have so enthusiastically espoused need not be accompanied by its depletion at home.

Tess Buchanan is a 2nd year Historian.