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Orwell rolls in his grave: Britain's endemic surveillance cameras talk back
Will Byrne
Published: Wednesday May 30, 2007
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Observed by over 4.2 million closed circuit – or CCTV – cameras across the country, Britain is already the most surveilled industrialized state in the Western world. It was recently estimated that the average Briton is captured by electronic eyes more than 300 times on a typical workday.

Yet the country’s surveillance network, which boasts one camera for every fourteen citizens, is no longer merely facilitating observance: It has now begun talking back. In a scene eerily reminiscent of Orwell's dystopian vision of 1984, loudspeakers in one small-town center in northern Britain scold anyone they catch engaged in “anti-social behaviour,” including littering, drunkenness, or fighting.

Observing a bank of monitors in the council “control centre,” Middlesbrough town officials use the technology to broadcast warnings to deviants in real-time. The crime-fighting strategy behind the “speaker cam” draws upon the humiliation of being rebuked in public. A representative explained its function to the BBC in April as being to “embarrass” misbehavers into following the rules. Reports of wrongful chiding have been plentiful.

In one case, a young mother named Marie Brewster was falsely reprimanded for littering. She recounted her experience for The Guardian. “We were in the town centre and I'd got some chips at McDonald's for my daughter Ellie, but they were hot so I tipped them into a box and crumpled the packet up. I put it on the bottom of Ellie's pram to take home but then heard this voice say: ‘Please place the rubbish in the bin provided.’” She filed her complaint when she saw footage of the event in a televised news piece advocating the effectiveness of the new innovation in combating crime.

The British government, it would seem, harbors little doubt about the system’s efficacy. On the same day that authorities in Middlesbrough issued an official apology to ­Ms. Brewster, the Home Office, the UK’s governmental branch on security and crime, announced its intent to distribute $1 million for the outfitting of such talking cameras in 20 other city centers. In one of the selected towns, local officials have opened up a contest for schoolchildren in which youths will compete to provide the recorded warnings to be broadcast in cases of infraction.

The “speaker cam” may be only the first in a row of new surveillance techniques to emerge in the British public sphere. A range of novel pre-emptive security technologies is being considered for addition to the CCTV arsenal throughout the country. In London, police and officials are discussing the widespread installation on pre-existing cameras of highly sensitive microphones that can detect “aggressive tones” based on the decibel, pitch, and speed of words spoken. More than 300 of these listening devices are already being piloted in offices and public spaces.

Citing a leaked memo from a January meeting of the Home Office, the London–based daily The Sun recently revealed that the government was also considering the installation of X-ray cameras in lampposts on public streets. “Detection of weapons and explosives will become easier” the memo read, but added bluntly, “Privacy is an issue because the machines see through clothing.”

The British technology review Electronic Design reported in late April that the Home Office is interested in utilizing new lip-reading technologies which, triggered by “key words and sentences,” could act to automatically alert authorities to criminal or terrorist intent. Research on the technology, part of a three year venture undertaken by a computer vision scientist, is already being funded by a $780,000 grant from the British government.

On Monday, police in the county of Merseyside unveiled Britain’s most dramatic surveillance contrivance to date: a CCTV camera that flies. Propelled by helicopter-style rotors and directed either by remote control or pre-programmed flight plans, the nearly silent two-foot drone can be outfitted with thermal-powered cameras and loudspeakers. Assistant Chief Constable Simon Byrne explained the primary purpose of the device as “to support our anti-social taskforce in gathering all-important evidence to put offenders before the courts.”

As the observation of behavior takes on bizarre new forms, and data collection on the public continues to lose transparency, red flags have begun waving among privacy groups. Many have expressed wariness over the potential for undemocratic abuses of personal information, a concern that has also been raised with regard to the UK’s police-controlled DNA databank, which now contains over 3.5 million profiles.

A study published by human rights watchdog Privacy International in November placed Britain among the five worst countries in the industrialized world at protecting individual privacy, ranking alongside China and Russia as exercising “endemic surveillance.” In an interview with RAW STORY, Privacy International’s Gus Hosein explained that the grounds for the grim assessment were by no means limited to Britain’s expansive fleet of cameras. He noted that, among western democracies, the UK is the only country in which judicial authorization is not required for third-party interception of communication, making governmental or corporate observance of an individual’s data all but impossible to regulate.

And despite giving rise to a corporate and law enforcement procedure that is singular to Britain among its democratic peers, Hosein stated that the issue has received “no coverage” in the press. Last year, he added, police accessed “traffic data” of communications – information on who emails whom, who calls whom, or an individual’s location at the time of mobile phone use – 439,000 times, all without a warrant.

Since his group released its stunning conclusions on privacy in the UK, Hosein said, things have only gotten worse. He described Britain’s new identity card scheme, an unprecedented endeavor in which all citizens and residents will be fingerprinted to allow for immediate identification, as the country’s “most invasive yet.” He also drew attention to Tony Blair’s call on Sunday to grant broader police powers nationwide, allowing officers to stop and question any individual without requiring suspicion of a crime. Under the proposed changes, which Blair plans to push into law over the next few weeks, individuals who refuse to answer police inquiries – which would cover anything from identity to destination – would run the risk of arrest or a fine. Such policy has never been implemented in Britain outside of wartime.

Hosein closed by saying that, with respect to privacy in the democratic world, “whatever bad policy is out there, Britain does it worse.”

The British political arena houses its share of critics as well, the most prominent being the government's information commissioner, Richard Thomas, who warned a year ago that Britain might “sleepwalk into a surveillance society.” He has more recently stated that the country is “committing a slow social suicide” with its CCTV proliferation.

Early this month, Thomas went before members of Parliament to voice his concerns over governmental and corporate intrusion into the lives of citizens and to push for increased safeguards, such as routine privacy impact assessments and greater regulation of the companies that supply surveillance technology. “No one wants their electronic footprint to expose every aspect of their daily life,” he said.

The UK, which has no written constitution, first enacted ground rules with respect to governmental security procedure in 1994 and passed its first comprehensive Human Rights Act in 1998. But some legal experts say that, in the actual process of pursuing and realizing security policy, the new regulations carry little weight. In an interview with RAW STORY, Bill Bowring, a senior professor of law at the University of London and a member of the human rights group Council of Liberty, suggested that the statutes are often circumvented or ignored altogether. “The present surveillance situation certainly transgresses both the Human Rights Act and the European Convention for Human Rights,” he said.

Bowring, troubled by what he called “the government's constant scare-mongering” in its furthering of “draconian” security measures, stressed the need for a “written constitution with entrenched provisions on human rights and civil liberties.”

Others see the issue quite differently. Home Secretary John Reid, perhaps the most ardent public proponent of surveillance in Britain, has often cast opposition to CCTV expansion as misguided priggishness about personal privacy, arguing that such a system is the only way to ensure individual security and comfort in a society beleaguered by violent crime. In a statement to the BBC about the “speaker cam” initiative, he predicted that there would be those “in the minority who will be more concerned about what they claim are civil liberties intrusions.”

But many detractors’ positions have nothing to do with questions of ethical or democratic transgression. Some of the more vocal opponents of the CCTV arsenal have set aside concerns about civil liberties to argue that the “eye in the sky” approach simply isn’t working against crime.

One of them is Martin Gill, a criminology professor at the University of Leicester, whose 2005 study of 13 CCTV community initiatives found that in a majority of the neighborhoods, criminal activity actually increased. The Home Office’s own comparative studies have found lighting in public areas to be a more effective tool in lowering crime levels than surveillance cameras. Many opponents have pointed to London, where the CCTV’s greatest concentration of cameras was ineffective in halting the terrorist bombings in July of 2005, and where a sharp rise in the past six months has put the city’s murder rate at one of its most critical levels ever.

For other CCTV critics, it is not a loss of liberties or even of lives that they bemoan, but rather the huge price tag. In the last ten years, the Home Office has spent more than three quarters of its crime prevention budget on “technology of record,” and $500 million has been spent since 1994 on the CCTV system alone.

Still, most Britons have shown little concern about the broadening surveillance of their lives. In the case of the CCTV surveillance apparatus, in fact, they have been overwhelmingly supportive. In a recent survey carried out by The Guardian, a miniscule 2 percent of UK citizens reported that they “object to the CCTV system in principle” – 45 percent even consented to the installation of cameras in public toilets. In another poll, 70 percent listed their explicit support for the advancement of the surveillance network.

Even Ms. Brewster, who watched her own unwarranted reproof at the hands of a “speaker cam” on the evening news, remained assenting. “I still think the cameras are a good idea,” she told the BBC, “but I have to say when you haven't done anything wrong it's annoying to appear like this.”