[Updated 10th March ’09.]
It’s hard to get accurate figures on the number of CCTV cameras currently silently watching us in the UK. In any case, it is a question of millions- some say as high as four or five. It’s become a part of our British identity. Only Russia, China and Malaysia, those bastions of liberal democracy, scored lower in a “Surveillance societies” survey comissioned by Privacy International in 2007. In fact, you can buy your very own CCTV kit in Aldi for £29.99.
The average Londoner is filmed around three hundred times a day . Merely walking down a high street, perhaps going into a department store, or sitting down, like I do, to work in my college library means being watched, silently and furtively.
And it’s not the Orwellian overtones, there isn’t one ‘Big Brother.’ In fact, there are lots. In 2004 a law was passed that gave councils more power to spy on their employees. It is so much part of our culture that surveillance is being used to make sure the neighbours don’t fly- tip, and Mary from accounts doesn’t pull a sicky.
Cameras, like anything else, are harmless in themselves. But if we accept the principle; that the cameras only bear witness to the guilty, which is what we do when we allow people to follow our every moves, then we let the gates open to a form of trial by trust in the government’s good will. This is seeping into our approach to legislation- calling a bill which changes the principles on which the police operate an “Anti- Terror” bill damns its opponents, implies that support for Habeas Corpus is terroristic, and masks the fact that detention, arrest and searching are things that are supposed to happen before you have been proven guilty, not with the assumption that you already are. Having a vague idea or suspicion, then giving yourself the benefit of the doubt, is not a firm foundation on which to build law.
The ease with which we accept the presence of CCTV on our roads, in the shops, where we work and, thanks to Aldi, in our homes, is nothing compared to the apathy we feel when civil protections going back hundreds of years are swept away with the wearied fatherly assurance of “National Security.” Everyone knows the drill: a brief storm in the media; the promise of “a full and thorough investigation,” public recriminations and pragmatic defences.
The Independent revealed, in 2006, that every year since 2001, thirty thousand people are stopped and their beings searched under laws purporting to be ‘Anti- Terror.’ And the same laws have been used in high profile cases. An old man screams “terrorist” at Tony Blair and is bundled out of the conference hall and arrested as one himself. The opposition politician Damian Green blows the whistle on Home office mistakes and is arrested for endangering his country and spreading fear of violent reprisal. In a bizarre twist on the conventional moral paradigm of principle vs pragmatism, Jacqui Smith invoked ‘the principle of operational independence’ to defend the illegal police arrest of Damian Green, breaking parliamentary privilege, and unashamedly pretending that the Home Secretary, who is head of the police force, was unaware that the arrest was due to take place, even though the police were brought in by… the Home Office.