The Yard has a review of the noughties in the Sunday Times. This line struck me:
The British, watched by a greater density of CCTV cameras than any other nation, have been keen to swap freedom for security.
The direct association between an increase in CCTV cameras and a decrease in freedom is pretty much a given in the perennial freedom vs security debates. Those of us with conservative leanings instinctively baulk at the idea of surveillance. Orwell obviously looms over this issue, but so does a long British tradition of mistrusting officialdom and espionage.
But does the assumption that a tolerance of CCTV cameras equals a willingness to ‘swap freedom for security’ really stand up to scrutiny? A few things spring to mind:
First, although it might be theoretically possible for Big Brother to watch you every step of your journey from, say, Bristol Temple Meads to Piccadilly Circus, practically speaking Big Brother lacks the competence, the budget and the will to do so. In reality, most CCTV footage is not monitored in real time for sinister purposes, but reviewed after an incident when it might (or might not) assist in a conviction.
In other words, there are a lot of people in the world and you are much less interesting and important than you think you are. Big Brother could be watching you, but he can’t really be bothered.
Second, the existence of a camera does not by itself affect your freedom to do something in public - such as walk your dog, protest against the Iraq invasion or start a business - merely your ability to do it unobserved. So the freedom that is directly affected by CCTV is the freedom to do something in a public space without being seen. This is quite a specific freedom. Did it ever exist? Is it a fundamental human right? When you come to think about it, is ‘freedom’ the right word or is security verses privacy a better description for the debate?
It could be that CCTV is a trivial issue which, because it feels icky and Orwellian, is given far too much weight in freedom/security musings. What about the surveillance technologies that move beyond shopping centres and railway stations to enter our homes? Amazon and Tesco know what you like because they spy on you through your computer or your Loyalty card. But that’s not so much 'security versus freedom' as 'privacy versus convenience'. And we can, after all, turn cookies off or refuse a Loyalty card.
But the idea that CCTV proves a decline of freedom seems overly simplistic – the world changes and we have different but not necessarily fewer freedoms. You can’t lurk unrecorded in a dark alley or smoke in a pub but you can marry someone of your own sex or go to that pub or to the supermarket on a Sunday afternoon. None of which is to deny the feeling of ickiness when we confront the extent to which our privacy can be easily invaded. As ever, I have no answer except to say that most things that are assumed to be true turn out to be wrong.