Friday, January 08, 2010

Freedom and surveillance

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.

27 comments:

Sean said...

Freedom is partly about taking responsibility for what you do. I think people get upset at CCTV (which i have on my house btw inside and out, think guns and ammo before you declare me a weirdo) makes people think rightly or wrongly that their natural responsibilities are being taken away and/or sidelined.

worm said...

In all these scenarios (CTV, ID cards etc) I am opposed because I simply do not trust the government with using collected data correctly at some point in the future. There is never a point when surveillance powers would be decreased, meaning that every step further we take with surveillance is one inexorable step down a slipery slope. For instance, the cameras dont 'watch' us now, but its only a few years until we have full face recognition on all cctv.

Very long story but I once walked past a murder scene in London, was captured on CCTV, ended up on Crimewatch ("police are searching for a man seen acting suspiciously etcetc") and then when I called up the police to eliminate myself from the enquiry I was automatically prime suspect and it took me a long (and very worrying) time to persude them otherwise.

Brit said...

WTF, Worm? That's a shocker!

Willard said...

Always a difficult call. CCTV doesn’t worry me too much. From an information processing point of view, there’s so much data being collected that anything I do is lost in the mass of details. It’s only really helpful after (or whilst) a crime is being committed. I hardly think anybody is watching me covertly adjust my underpants in the classic section of Waterstone’s.

Brit said...

A couple more thoughts arise on this topic:

As Sean's comment shows, private CCTV is a deterrent and all about protecting one's property - a very traditional British 'right'.

And CCTV is also an area where two traditional British sensibilities collide: a mistrust of surveillance; and a favouring of practicality over principle. ie. it isn't that big a deal that I could in theory be seen adjusting my underpants in Waterstones when in practice CCTV is used to catch bombers or find missing persons.

Problematically I'm sympathetic to both the principle and practical arguments (whereas, for example, I oppose ID cards on both theoretical and practical grounds).

Maybe the ultimate British value is reasonableness. This is why it was always wrongheaded to hold up Tony Martin as some kind of folk hero - Martin failed the reasonableness test.

malty said...

I like the one in our local Boots, it gives me a suntan, the one in Spar I hate, makes me look like Niles Crane when in fact I am Clarke Gables double.
Just to be awkward, I can see nothing inherently wrong with ID cards, properly done they would work, CCTV on the other hand seems to suffer from poor image quality which renders most of them useless.
As a cure for the unemployment problem why not legions of people on street corners with pad and pencil, sketching us.

Willard said...

Another thought: CCTV does make me feel safer when out at night. But then, not as safe as I'd feel packing some kind of firearm. There, I suppose, you have the question of 'reasonableness' in a nutshell. It's one of those qualities which governments find very hard to classify.

I quite like the rule they've imposing for the full body scanners at airports, that the person viewing the images are in a room where they wouldn't be able to associate the image with a real person. Not sure how this works when they spot a 'target' but it seems reasonable.

Gaw said...

I agree with you Brit. Would those people opposed to CCTV also oppose having more 'bobbies on the beat'. But same difference surely.

Why is it we have lots of CCTV but no ID cards whereas the Continent has less CCTV and compulsory ID cards?

Are they linked or separate phenomena?

Simon said...

The american sci-fi writer David Brin was inspired to write a non-fiction book The Transparent Society by British CCTV. His central point is that surveillance is one way - the public is expected to be visible but government and big corporations are able to hide. It's this imbalance that leads people to discount the real benefits that CCTV bring. If you can track the book down it's worth a read.

Peter Burnet said...

I think Simon has put his finger on it. How else to explain why people are leery of cameras, but comforted by police officers walking the streets and observing everything?

dogimo said...

The freedom to demand privacy in public is one of our most cherished and absurd rights!

Brit said...

Superb, Dogimo, the coup de grace.

The three stages of deconstructing a truism:

1) state the truism ("The British, watched by a greater density of CCTV cameras than any other nation, have been keen to swap freedom for security.")

2) ramble lengthily around the topic (this post)

3) restate the truism as nonsense: "The freedom to demand privacy in public is one of our most cherished and absurd rights!"

Fine blog fun.

malty said...

Fool that I am for asking but isn't dogimo's truism a falsism? We don't demand privacy in public, we ask for the right not to be spied upon by people who have absolutely no right whatever to involve themselves in our lawfull daily pursuits.

Detail, Brit m'lad, detail, the devil is as ever in it.

The first principal of give the bastards an inch and they will take a mile applies here, immovable, that's what we have to be when dealing with civil service and local government apparatchiks and their camp followers.

CCTV is a prime example of how the state under the Blair-Brownshirt axis has removed itself from the common herd.
The only workable deterrent against crime of any sort is reliable intelligence backed up by well trained uniforms on the street. Lots of plod, big and hard'uns, unencumbered by health and safety pettiness and the obscenity of the legal profession and it's mantra, protect the criminal at any cost.

Brit said...

But how does more plod and less CCTV fit into the freedom/security thing?

Why wouldn't it be less plod and less CCTV, or more of both?

malty said...

Or, as has already happened, plod complete with CCTV atop helmet.

CCTV cannot arrest anyone on the spot.

Yet!

Mark said...

Hmmn, CCTV has many different uses and it's possibly misleading to lump them all together. But we do, which reflects our unease with the way the state has come to regard us, the citizenry, as hostile, a threat, to be watched 24/7. Interestingly, desktop computer software has followed the same course. The user is seen as hostile, a threat to the operating system's integrity (and, of course, to the Hollywood cash machine). So maybe this is a long-term historical trend, a move to an age of authoritarianism.

You don't see all that many CCTV cameras where stabbings and crack dens are on the cards - in the big sink estates, round here at least. Same as always, poor-on-poor crime is below the radar, somebody else's problem. You see plenty of CCTV cameras where someone might nick a pair of socks from Marks and Spencer.

Oh well, I suppose one result is that anything official is instantly distrusted these days, at least once you get beyond the "news" pages of so many papers which just recycle press releases. Even if it could be shown rock-solidly that CCTV was high effective in all sorts of ways - I've no idea either way - most people simply wouldn't believe it.

ghostofelberry said...

On the subject of whether we can trust our government, i barely follow the news but have already come across two stories of local councils using CCTV to spy on people for no good reason (one was to see if a couple lived where they claimed to live - they were applying to send their child to a good school). Knowing people who work in local councils, and having heard their diatribes about their petty-minded, bone-idle, openly malevolent and power mad colleagues, i am not inclined to trust such people with any power at all. So it's just as well i live in Das Reich.

Gadjo Dilo said...

I live in the part of the world where, supposedly, "Instead of you watching TV, TV watches you" (copyright Yakov Smirnoff - anybody remember him?). I suspect ones level of alarm should depend very much on who's doing the watching.

Hey Skipper said...

The British, watched by a greater density of CCTV cameras than any other nation, have been keen to swap freedom for security.

And what freedom, precisely, has been traded?

Always a difficult call. CCTV doesn’t worry me too much. From an information processing point of view, there’s so much data being collected that anything I do is lost in the mass of details.

Yes, but. The latest version of Apple's iPhoto application does facial recognition amazingly well and fast. On my rinky home computer.

I guess I'm with malty on this.

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As a side note, maybe it's just me, but Appleyard's article seemed a noodling, eye-glazing, mess far from his usual standards.

malty said...

What ho elberry, how's the clanking chain business.
You obviously have as yet had no direct dealings with Deutsche Post's minions!

ghostofelberry said...

Deutsche Post are paragons of delivery compared to DHL, Malty. If you don't happen to be in when DHL call they claim you "refused delivery" or, even, accepted it when in fact they threw it in a ditch. Bloody Germans.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who has ever seen any CCTV footage will agree that most of it is as useful as a chocolate teapot and invades no privacy.

Gaw said...

I suspect that due to FoI law, mobile phone cameras, hacking, leaking and blogging we are surveilling the state more now than ever. Just as it is with us.

Brit said...

I wasn't making a pro-CCTV argument, I was looking at the assumption that it shows we're willing to sacrifice freedom for security.

But I think the fears that the authorities use CCTV to 'spy' on us are purely theoretical. In practice they don't and can't and really aren't nearly as interested in you as you are. So really that's just a slippery slope argument - but so is 'More Bobbies on the Beat' and any other crime-fighting measure you can think of.

Brit said...

Elb - local govs use much more than CCTV for benefit cheats etc, they essentially employ full-time private detectives.

malty said...

Brit, you are of course right, obsession with 'them' is not altogether a healthy pursuit when it involves focus upon a single issue. However, as Nick Cohen demonstrates we have to be ever vigilant else we will drown in a sea of social engineering.

I repeat 'don't give the bastards an inch'

malty said...

and here's the tubby polizei. The inevitable march of progress.