Mind how you walk. It could be a crime
London Telegraph | March 26, 2007
Later today, the Commons home affairs select committee will announce it is to conduct an inquiry into the growth of surveillance in Britain. It is tempting to say this is not before time, but it is probably too late if the aim is to have any influence over policy.
We are already a "surveillance society". We are, for the time being, fortunate that the full potential for its abuse is constrained by the pluralist democracy in which we live. However, we do not have to look back very far in history to imagine the use to which such snooping could be put.
In the media, whenever we wish to describe the burgeoning intrusiveness of the past decade, we are inevitably drawn to one of our greatest writers, George Orwell - although even he could not have envisaged that, in addition to the ubiquitous cameras, it would be possible to track everyone from cradle to grave through computer-chip technology or to build up a database of the population's DNA. But he would have understood why it is being done.
In 1984, it is about control. The state tells its people that the cameras are there for their benefit and to prevent crime, but the crime they are preventing is insurrection. Everyone is watched to ensure they conform.
Winston Smith can never get away from the surveillance. At one point, he realises how dangerous it is even to allow his thoughts to wander in public or when facing the telescreen. Facial expressions were watched closely and could have dire consequences.
Giving a disbelieving look when a state policy or a military victory was announced was considered a "facecrime". There would have been a lot of facecriminals around on Budget day last week.
OK, so we have not gone that far. But the point is that we could. In the wrong hands, technology that appears benign can be used to shackle. Within the lifetimes of millions alive today, there were totalitarian regimes that would have made the most appalling use of such opportunities.
I have no doubt that our political masters believe the rapid expansion of CCTV cameras, for instance, is good for us. Indeed, that would be the view of most people, who seem happy with the cameras.
It stands to reason that if you have a camera trained on a shopping centre, a car park, a hotel lobby or a bus stop, we must be safer.
Well, actually, it does not follow at all. One problem is that cameras take the place of other forms of crime prevention, such as more police or better street lighting.
You might feel safer and the mugger may well think twice before striking if he thinks a CCTV camera is about. But they can engender complacency; and if cameras are so effective in preventing crime, why have the numbers of town-centre assaults and robberies shot up even as CCTV has mushroomed?
The iconic CCTV images we all remember are of crimes happening, or about to happen, not of them being prevented: the grainy image of Jamie Bulger being led away by two boys to his death; Jill Dando shopping before she was murdered on her doorstep; the four July 7 bombers boarding a train at Luton en route to London.
Perhaps CCTV will lead police in Jamaica to the killer of Bob Woolmer. But even as a detection tool, CCTV has been found wanting. A review carried out by Home Office experts and police chiefs has found that too many images are hard to access.
The next generation of CCTV will be far more sophisticated than the analogue video cameras we have now. The new ones will be smart digital technologies able to "decide" if a crime is about to happen and focus in on suspicious activity rather than on everything, making it easier to go back over the images.
These intelligent cameras can tell if someone is spraying graffiti on a wall because they have "learnt" what normal behaviour should be within their field of vision.
Similarly, a camera trained on a car park will be activated only if it detects someone going from car to car. An airport camera can be programmed to know what a departure hall should look like, with thousands of separate movements. A single suitcase left for any length of time would trigger an alarm.
This technology was developed for use in hotels to alert staff to a breakfast tray left outside a room. Soon, it will be coming to a street near you.
Why not go the whole hog and have microphones attached to cameras or embedded in street lights? The Dutch have pioneered a system that recognises aggressive sounds, without actually eavesdropping on conversations (perish the thought).
My favourite is automatic gait recognition. This identifies people by the way they walk and the Government has asked Ministry of Defence scientists to develop it for widespread use.
Cameras are programmed to pick up on a particular gait, thereby making it impossible for a suspect to escape by covering his face. Even Orwell did not come up with "gaitcrime".
It is right that the home affairs select committee should look at this, although it is hard to see what it can do about it. We already have close to five million CCTV cameras, which is one fifth of the world's total.
The average Londoner might be monitored by 300 CCTV cameras a day. They are not going to be switched off, merely made more sophisticated.
But the committee can do one thing and that is alert the country to the potential dangers of putting all this surveillance together - the CCTV, DNA, ID card, radio-frequency identification, citizens' database - and linking it up with the rest of the information held on us.
Whatever can be said for the value of any one of these, it is the combination that makes me feel uneasy. I just hope it doesn't show on my face.
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