02 December 2008

I think I am being watched

"Throughout the country are an estimated five million CCTV cameras; that's one for every 12 citizens. We have more than 20 per cent of the world's CCTV cameras, which, considering that Britain occupies a tiny 0.2 per cent of the world's inhab itable land mass, is quite an achievement. The average Londoner going about his or her business may be monitored by 300 CCTV cameras a day. Roughly 1,800 cameras watch over London's railway stations and another 6,000 permanently peer at commuters on the Underground and London buses."
[New Statesman: Watching You, Watching Me, 2 October 2006]

Coming from a country where privacy is regarded very highly (or just plainly coming from what people over here in a sense of European belonging call "The Continent"), one really needs a bit of getting used to being on show 24 hours a day from the point you step out of the door. My Right To Private Life as anyone else's in the EU for that matter, is written down in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Now, I don't want to bore anyone of you guys but it is in your own interest to be aware of the scope of that article. Article 8.2 allows exceptions

"such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. to... except in cases where national security or the freedom of others are at stake."

Sounds plausible ey? Now, although I agree that video surveillance - if used effectively - has its advantages but did you know that a recent study by no-one less that the MET Police themselves pulished a report that CCTV contributed to only 3 % (!) of convictions?! As a result, police officers are now trained how to maximise the use of CCTV software and, surprisingly enough, also mentioned in the New Statesman article quoted above (a long article but worth every line of it, I do recommend reading, it's a journalist's report after a visit in London's CCTV headquarters!), the private sector, in the form of sports reporting, now serves as an inspiration for monitoring several cameras at once.

All that the CCTV craze started as protection against IRA attacks a decade or two ago, as far as I am aware of, and the recent 07/07 attacks re-kindled the debate on the transparent citizen. Some people say, that the War on Terror makes the use of CCTV even more necessary whereas others argue that it did not prevent the attacks from happening. For that, one has police officers with a twitchy finger on the trigger who shoot first, ask questions later. Take Charles Menezes, the Brazilian who got killed in Stockwell tube station because he looked just like the suspect the police was after (except he had a totally different face). Too bad that CCTV footage does not show the officers' faces clear enough and of course, with only 30-40 cameras in each tube station, there was no other angle available for the whole time that they were down there. What a pity, no? Well, it did cause severe crisis to the MET Police, resulting eventually in Sir Ian Blair's (the top copper) resignation.

What I do not understand is how people can give up their individual freedoms like that? It does not stop with CCTV, it continues with ID cards, swipe cards, Oyster travelcards... I wonder what the future will bring: Personalised direct mail advertisement through integrated CCTV systems for the corporate sector, perhaps pioneered by Google? It probably has sth to do with the UK not having had a history of genocide or censorship, like in "The Continent" at some point in time. Did you know that the synonym of Pol Pot, the politician responsible for the Cambodian genocide who even used children to spy on their parents, means Brother Number One? The brother that promised to take care of your problems?

Whoever is in charge of CCTV apparently did realise that CCTV is more effective if it actually detects a crime before or when it is taking place. Easy fix! Since 2003, there now is intelligent camera software that automatically detects "behavioural oddities". Welcome to the Minority Report era! You can see a sample of that as well as a general overview over UK's "surveillance society" in the following video. My favourite is the camera that speaks! It's like the voice of God coming down on you!

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