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Big Brother sugars the surveillance pill

London Guardian | January 4, 2007
Victor Keegan

Something funny has been happening to the CCTV cameras in our neighbourhood. They have started growing ears. Not real ones - at least not yet - but audio functions enabling them to "hear" what is happening around them as well as see. At the moment the experiment is confined to six cameras operating in the Soho area of Westminster, London, which has a high concentration of clubs and bars. An advanced wireless network which the council is building relays the information to a monitoring centre. If it is successful, it will be expanded to other selected areas. Police in the UK are also thinking about installing new CCTV cameras sensitive enough to record conversations up to 100 yards away to thwart hooliganism but, wisely, are keen to have a national debate about it first.

Westminster council claims that the devices don't eavesdrop since they monitor ambient noise, not actual voices. For instance, if the decibels emanating from clubs rise above acceptable levels late at night then the authorities are automatically informed so, instead of sending out noise monitoring officers they can ring the club's owners to warn them or, if it is serious enough, take the appropriate action.
The council argues that this experiment arose from what it believes is its unique approach to the roll-out of wireless over eight square miles of the city. Unusual for a Conservative council, it is being driven by public services. The high bandwidth needed to support a CCTV wireless network offers spare capacity for delivering other services where only the imagination is the limit. Possible applications include monitoring old people's safety in their own homes and automatic detection of faulty street lights.

There is no reason to doubt Westminster's policy not to monitor voices, but other organisations, not subject to democratic scrutiny, need not feel so constrained. It is not difficult to find companies selling audio-visual surveillance equipment on the internet. It is even possible that actual voice surveillance operating in troublespots in UK town centres might prove as uncontroversial as the omnipresence of CCTV cameras, an activity at which Britain leads the world.

We have forestalled the onset of a governmental Big Brother by meekly accepting surveillance and even doing much of it ourselves. The video camera age has turned mutual surveillance into a hobby and even a job. Last month, BBC footage of sniffer dogs during the Ipswich murder inquiry came from a passerby taking a photo in a sealed-off area, while this week a clip on websites of Saddam Hussein's execution apparently came from a cameraphone.

We had better get used to all this: it is the way reporting is going. A US media start-up, NowPublic. com claims to have 52,000 mojos (untrained mobile journalists) around the world ready to send back photos and text from riots and troublespots that it would take trained journalists days to reach. It knows where each of its mojos is through cell-triangulation or satellite tracking. When Heathrow was closed to the media during a security alert last year, NowPublic claimed it had seven people inside the terminal taking snaps or videos.

Pretty soon we won't need to rely on external recording devices as we will be able to have tiny audio-visual cameras attached to ourselves chronicling our entire lives. Professor Nigel Shadbolt, president of the British Computer Society, told a Memories for Life conference at the British Library recently that "in the not too distant future a device the size of a sugar cube will exist able to record an entire lifetime of human memories". The question is whether governments should be allowed to build a sugar mountain out of these cubes, or whether they belong to us. Despite the fears of the government's own information commissioner, Richard Thomas, that the UK is in the throes of a "sleepwalk into a surveillance society", few people have got worked up about it.

 

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