Wednesday, April 04, 2007

UK - Big Brother surveillance society

Big Brother style surveillance, as depicted in George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty Four, is expanding its presence into every part of British life. Cameras can be seen almost everywhere. From the moment one leaves home, Britain’s citizens may be watched by CCTV cameras which adorn high streets. Take a bus or a train and the cameras continue their surveillance. Enter a shop, restaurant or public house [bar], and Big Brother will watch while you shop, eat or drink. Now Britain is to see, or rather hear, talking cameras [BBC]. The talking cameras will be installed in Southwark, in London, Barking and Dagenham, in London, Reading, Thanet, Harlow, Norwich, Ipswich, Plymouth, Gloucester, Derby, Northampton, Mansfield, Nottingham, Coventry, Sandwell, Wirral, Blackpool, Salford, South Tyneside and Darlington. The idea behind the talking cameras is that a disembodied voice would order people not to break the law. In a no smoking area the order to desist might be heard. If litter is dropped the order to pick it up might be issued.
Talking CCTV cameras are only part of the technological surveillance of little Britain. Already facial recognition systems are under trial in a number of areas and number-plate recognition systems are commonplace. ANPR [automatic number-plate recognition] systems are not only used by the police, but can often be seen at petrol station forecourts. Speed cameras often known by their trade name, Gatso, are now being gradually replaced with SPECS. The camera system, manufactured by Speed Check Services Ltd, work by recording a vehicles number plate at each fixed camera site, using ANPR technology. As the distance is known between these sites, the average speed can be calculated by dividing this by the time taken to travel between two points. Further initiatives have been proposed which would track vehicles using GPS technology. GPS tracking would enable authorities to charge motorists for the distance they travel [BBC].
The argument for the use of these systems is to cut crime, reduce accidents and to counter terrorism. At first sight this may be a laudable use. However, as the rule of law becomes increasingly stricter, a society can become stifled and paranoid. Curtailing violent crime, vandalism and theft is perhaps a legitimate use of surveillance technology. But when the same technology is used in defence of a totalitarian or fascist state, its use may be questioned. The issue of ‘thought crime’ may soon be an issue as discussions have already taken place to install CCTV with microphones [BBC]. The devices would be able to pick up conversations up to 100 metres away. However, even the former Home Secretary, David Blunkett has described the move as “a step too far” and likened it to Aldous Huxley’s book A Brave New World. In an interview with the BBC, he said, "As you walk down the street you expect to be able to have a private conversation. If you can't guarantee that - and here is someone speaking who has been pretty tough in terms of what should be available to protect society - I believe we have slipped over the edge." With all of the advances and uses of technology already being implemented, it is a dystopia which society has already entered. And with devices such as mobile-phones, and RFIDs built into passports there is no hiding from an all surveying State [Opendemocracy /

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