The surveillance society is here

May 4, 2007 at 3:00 am 5 comments

japan houseI have a curious habit – whenever I’m in a shopping centre, railway station or other public space, I look for those insidious CCTV cameras. I blame my reading of Robert O’Harrow’s book, No Place to Hide, for this paranoid tendency. As our current civilisation starts to collapse (I’ll be doing a future post on this), I think we’ll see more regulations, more rules and more Government intrusion poking into the privacy of our lives. We’re already in the grip of a fear society.

So reading this article certainly didn’t allay my fears, in fact I’m now looking at lamp posts with some suspicion! The UK is about to install Talking CCTV cameras in 20 areas across the nation. But the UK’s Information Commissioner, Robert Thomas, says this may be taking things a bit too far (smart man!). Thomas has also raised concerns about listening devices being installed alongside cameras (what??) so authorities can eavesdrop on private conversations. Speaking to the Home Affairs Committee inquiring into the surveillance society, Thomas has pointed out that the efficacy of CCTV in detecting or preventing crime has not been shown.

Loudspeakers in lamp posts have been trailed in Middlesbrough and a case in Essex was cited where CCTV images of a man who was trying to commit suicide were later shown on TV to demonstrate the benefits of CCTV in tackling crime (not sure I see the connection between suicide and crime). Also discussed with the Committee was the prospect of facial recognition technology being used in stores. Already used by police to spot criminals, this raises the question of whether trying on clothes in a store will be a safe activity for us in the future. (Great: now I’ll be looking very closely for cameras in change rooms!).

I would like to know if there’s a code of practice for use of CCTV – does anyone know? And what might be the protocol for agencies sharing images and information? What’s to stop excessive and abusive surveillance of individuals??

And here’s some scary statistics: there are up to 4.2m CCTV cameras in Britain – about one for every 14 people – and the UK also holds 3.6 million DNA samples, which is the world’s biggest database.

I’ll be investigating the situation in Australia. In the meantime, if you haven’t read No Place to Hide do so to be more informed about the hidden web of business and government who are tracking our lives and identities. And don’t be complacent: next time you’re in a public space, check out just how many CCTV cameras watch your every move!


Entry filed under: CCTV, Surveillance society.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Matt Moore  |  May 4, 2007 at 9:32 am

    So back when most Europeans used to live in small villages, communal surveillance was common. Everyone knew what was going on. Cities provided people with anonymity – which was part of their attraction if you didn’t fit into village life well.

    State-controlled CCTV could be seen as the nationalisation of surveillance (an area pioneered by the private sector). Given that the UK state is far more centralised than its Australian counter-part, it is perhaps unsurprising that the UK is “ahead” of Australia here. Interesting stuff here:

    What I think is interesting is that surveillance is becoming privatised – or may be dispersed is a better word. The last couple of years have seen a flood of news stories with bashings caught on camera phones, camcorders, etc. Those idiots that put their antics on YouTube being on the most obvious.

    It is no longer just “them” watching “us” but us all watching each other.

  • 2. thinkingshift  |  May 4, 2007 at 10:41 am

    Hi Matt
    Thx for the link, will check it out. You might like Jane Jacobs’ book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Similar to your comment about people in small villages knowing who’s doing what: Jacobs talks about cities having eyes – people watching each other from apartments, people knowing neighbours well and chatting to each other. Somehow have we lost this communality and we need CCTV to watch over us now instead? Yep, agree with your comment on privatisation too.

  • 3. Jon  |  May 7, 2007 at 10:25 am

    “I would like to know if there’s a code of practice for use of CCTV – does anyone know? And what might be the protocol for agencies sharing images and information? What’s to stop excessive and abusive surveillance of individuals??”.

    In answer to your question, in the UK there is no statutory regulation of CCTV, and whilst there are a few codes of practice available, they are all voluntary.

    The Data Protection Act (DPA) which is in theory supposed to control the way in which CCTV images are stored and used, has a number of exemptions which leave large numbers of cameras (and operators) unaffected by the legislation. Likewise the Human Rights Act (HRA), is pretty irrelevant in most situations.

    As such, there is little to prevent excessive surveillance, although more serious abuses can often be challenged using ‘Harassment’ legislation (or in some situations the DPA or possibly the HRA), although it can be difficult to prove.

    Incidentally the issue of the ‘attempted suicide’ is a fairly well documented case, where the individual involved had his recording plastered all over the TV (on an entertainment programme), without his consent, and quite clearly in breach of the DPA, and to some degree his human rights.

    That doesn’t mean that similar situations don’t still occur, as was demonstrated in recent TV news reports of the “Talking CCTV” in Middlesbrough, when numerous members of the public were shown on TV, almost certainly without having first been consulted.

  • 4. thinkingshift  |  May 7, 2007 at 10:32 am

    Hi Jon
    Thx for the detailed response. Has confirmed for me what I had hoped wasn’t the case! in an upcoming post, I’ll be exploring what I see as future gaining of control by authorities over our lives and rights, as our society descends into social unrest, further divide between rich and poor, upheavals from climate change etc etc. CCTV cameras are but one aspect of the greater surveillance we’ll be facing.

  • 5. Myspace Codes Hide Comments  |  July 23, 2007 at 11:01 am

    Myspace Codes Hide Comments

    I don’t agree with you in 100%, but you covered some good points regarding this topic


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