Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Why Should You Be Free From Intrusion?

OVer at Iain Dale's place a debate is sort of going on about liberties, especially as they are affected by CCTV. Tom Harris MP makes the basic point, asking us exactly how our liberties are affected by the cameras?

Well, in true NuLab or progressive style, I would say that this is a simplistic question and that the answer is fairly complicated.

Firstly, we need to acknowledge that we have consented over the past 15 years or so, to being watched in public. By government and by private companies and even by private individuals. It is perfectly true, i think, to say that there is no real public demand to abolish them. I think some people do feel safer with the cameras around. But then this is no reason not to make the case against them, or to challenge the view that they are a good in our society. It is merely to state the obvious: that we have devolved control over our communities to faces behind screens, that we have given up on a police officer being able or willing to prevent crime, that we want to feel there is an authority looking over us.

I frequently do claim to speak for others on this blog, but today I'll settle for speaking for myself: I have never thought that a CCTV camera protected me: I have often thought that if I were mugged, it might help catch the perpetrator. I don't see it as a crime prevention device at all: how can a camera stop a crime? Especially if all you need to do is wear a hoody to escape its attentions?

Unfortunately I don't look good in hoodies and am probably the only person in the world who looks worse in dark glasses, so those aren't really options for me.

Being watched by the state, or whoever, as you proceed about your lawful business, makes a basic assumption: that crime will occur, and that you might do it. This differs from a copper on the beat in that they look for evidence of possible or potential crime, and look to make citizens feel safer - especially if they are known the community, as used to be common. A camera is just there to see you. The widespread presence of CCTV on our streets is a testament to the automatic mistrust our leaders and authorities have of us. Street to street, corner by corner, you are always on the verge of committing an offence. Step into a shop and you might be a thief. Get on a bus and you might slash the seats. Always the surveillance and always the justification "you have nothing to fear if you've done nothing wrong".

But does the citizen have the right to proceed privately in a public space, or does going out make you concede that you should be observed by the state (and others)? At the moment i think most of us would probably agree that if you step out in public, you lose that right to privacy you might have at home. I can see the force of that. There is no right to privacy in public.

But that simply means there is no right not to be seen: it does not automatically confer on anyone the right to suspect you of a crime (and when you put CCTV alongside the DNA database this ideology can be seen to be building rapidly).

Therefore I think it is a kind of de-citizenisation. It encourages you to believe that you need to be watched - for your own good; it encourages authorities to believe you need to be watched - for their own good; and it is a testimony to the view that crime can only be dealt with after it has occurred, and certainly not prevented.

This government, and others of its hue, along with its bedfellows in universities and in organisations such as Canada's Human Rights Commissions, is not simply interested in crime as such - though that it is, as it has created many of them and thereby made it much harder to be a law abiding citizen - but in appropriateness, "helpfulness", language and ideology. The movement towards criminalising things the authorities simply disapprove of, such as speech, is strong and will only increase towards the end of this government. That is, it cares about what is in your mind. It wants you to think what it thinks is right. About certain religions, human sexuality; about its specific and ideologically based notions of "hate".

CCTV makes the job of enforcing such desires much, much easier. Cameras exist that shout at people. Cameras that can hear cannot be far away. There is really is nothing stopping the extensive network of cameras being used to police conversations between individuals. It will take only the political will. And with the political will there to create various databases, tracking your movements for your entire life, with your DNA taken for being wrongfully arrested, with cautions for fighting at the age of 13 turning up on CRB checks thirty years later (as does happen incidentally) - why would you doubt that the political will is there?

The will is already there to use cameras to enforce parking regulations at 3am, to detect apple cores and cigarette butts being thrown onto the ground, to prosecute for leaving bin lids a little bit open: these are not authorities whose first motivation is to serve the public.

I would accept a charge of "alarmist" at this point. It seems fair enough. But then I am alarmed about it. And this is why I am saying so.

1 comment:

Liz said...

Airports, places like that, need CCTV. Unpeopled car parks can be scary places to women alone and knowing someone is watching is helpful. Other than that I'm not sure that we need to be watched so much.

Having said that I am only vaguely aware of cameras and am probably on film scratching my bum or picking my nose.