“Surveillance” for one or another reason seems to be the word of the moment, appearing every time I read a newspaper, turn on the radio, or go online. And the more often it appears the clearer it becomes that at all levels of our societies, from gormless TV shows to cutting-edge technology watching what other people do has become big business.
Nothing new there you might say. After all, security cameras have been a part of all our lives for a long time now, and surely Big Brother is yesterday’s news? But bedazzled as we’ve been by how much easier mobile communication has become we’ve been slow to see the rate at which the surveillance industry has expanded since the 1990’s, and careless about exactly what this means for our own privacy and integrity.
Spy vs Spy
For an obvious example, look at the situation now in Britain. You could be forgiven, following the revelations relating to the tabloid newspaper phone tapping and hacking scandals for thinking that the UK has become a society where, at some level everyone is spying on everyone else. Figures vary but a reliable survey undertaken in 2011 estimated that there are 1.85 million CCTV cameras operating in the UK, the vast majority of them operated by private companies.
The Guardian 2 March 2011:
More to Come
Despite that, and the suspicion that Britons are already the most watched people on earth the government is working hard to introduce laws allowing the authorities a far greater ability to monitor email and social networking in real-time.
The Guardian 2 April 2012
Mobile phone surveillance meanwhile, even the remote control of computers and mobile devices took a great leap forward last year after the introduction by the Met police of surveillance technology that can masquerade as a mobile phone network, allowing authorities to shut off phones remotely, intercept communications and gather data about thousands of users within a targeted area.
The Guardian 30 October 2011
For whatever mysterious and deep-lying psychological reasons surveillance and developing the means to expand and refine the scope of those who watch seems to be something the British are particularly good at. So good in fact that British export companies make up a substantial wedge of the estimated £3bn a year industry, exporting worldwide, including to countries such as Egypt, Syria,Yemen and Iran.
The Guardian 7 April 2012
Meanwhile in the US plans are in full swing to develop a government centre for “total information awareness” on a mind-blowing scale, plans that make British and European capabilities seem puny by comparison.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism 2 April 2012
It’s difficult not to conclude that the aim of such an installation is quite simply to track and record everything, everywhere. As Wikileaks founder Julian Assange says in the short video below: “This is not some theoretical threat that might perhaps happen to one person one day, but is actually happening to everyone right now.”
Now you see it, now you don’t
Now no longer just an abstract concept surveillance and its consequences have come closer to home recently. A couple of weeks ago the son of a friend was badly beaten by at least one policeman while out with friends on a Saturday night. The young man, one of the most unlikely people you could think of to be involved in violence of any kind was beaten to the ground, then arrested for supposedly striking one of the officers. Despite his injuries he was then taken to a prison cell where he spent the rest of the night without the benefit of any form of medical attention. It transpired that despite the presence of no fewer than 18 surveillance cameras in the centre of the small Dutch town where this occurred apparently not one of them registered the incident. And then it turned out that they did, a fact reluctantly admitted by the police shortly after a lawyer for the boy became involved. It seems that, as ever, the truth relating to any particular set of circumstances remains the property of those with their fingers on the buttons, at least until the right kind of pressure is applied.
Mystery to Me
Which leaves me with the question that is the core mystery in this culture of intense scrutiny: what the hell is everyone so scared of? You’d probably get a different answer from everyone you asked but, as someone reminded me recently it was none other than Jean Paul Sartre who argued that the thing we most fear and will do almost anything to avoid confronting is our own freedom. So profoundly terrifying is this prospect that we develop belief systems that not only produce terrors out of thin air but which also absolve us from responsibility for our own thoughts and actions.
The blame always lies somewhere else – we blame the government and its minions for sticking their noses into every nook and cranny of our lives, they in turn blame whatever sinister forces they’ve dreamed up to suit their purpose at the time. We point at the camera or at the bogeyman and complain that our lives are determined and manipulated by forces beyond our control. This not only lets us off the hook when it comes to taking charge of our own destiny, but creates a void easily filled by the ideas of those with questionable intentions.
Progress Without Fear
We’re freer than we think we are, but no one will ever hand that freedom to us on a plate, or even discuss it outside of the rarefied realms of philosophical enquiry. Developing our own awareness and knowledge – our consciousness, will give us the tools that will enable us to progress without fear. That’s the light at the end of the tunnel and the only thing in all this that makes any sense to me at all.
Privacy International: www.privacyinternational.org
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism: www.thebureauinvestigates.com