Surveillance does not make us safe

The UK is one of the most surveilled societies in the world along with North Korea. Is it all about solving crime? No, it is about securing the state's control and crushing individual self-respect

Henry Porter
28 September 2010

This is a contribution to a seminar held to accompany the Tate Modern's Exhibition Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera.

There is a man living in Carlisle called Christian Lord. Until this summer his name was as unblemished as it sounds.

All was right with his life until he noticed that an unoccupied house opposite his own place had sprouted a CCTV camera that was aimed into his bedroom.

His partner was depressed and suffered sleepless nights, so he decided to take matters into his own hands. He crept into the property, removed the camera and threw it in a near by river. He was then arrested, prosecuted, fined £1,500 and given a 12-month probation supervision order.

I must say that if there is any crime in Britain that I wholeheartedly support it is this one. For me the offence of the unwarranted intrusion into a man’s private life far outweighs the offence of theft of the camera concerned. But the crucial aspect of the case is that no one could determine who placed the camera outside Mr Lord’s bedroom, or for what purpose.

Judge Peter Hughes QC asked ‘Under what authority was this done?’

Answer came there none.

But we should never stop asking that question in Britain.

I experienced an initial rush of enthusiasm when the Coalition came together on such measures as the further regulation of CCTV. But liberty seems to have slipped down the agenda and this is despite the state’s relentless energy in gathering our personal information, watching our movements and monitoring our communications.

Some may rejoice at the ‘New Politics” but it seems to me we are still building the infrastructure for a potential police state without a care in the world.

I’m going to say a few words about this and then move to the importance of privacy in the relationship between the state and the individual.

I come at the question not as a journalist but as a campaigner. Here, I am going to concentrate on surveillance by authority and government.  However, this does not excuse my colleagues in the media. The phone hacking and secret surveillance by News International and other organisation was shameful. .

But it’s important to understand that although the media is intrusive and breaks the law, it possesses a mere  fraction of the powers at the disposal of the state and its agencies.

Surveillance has become the dark obsession of the British. Cameras are everywhere. Outside North Korea, we are the most watched public in the world. Yet there are those who doubt this.  Worriers have been dismissed as:

  • “alarmists and paranoid fantasists.”
  • “self-obsessed individualists who care only for their own privacy.”
  •  “conspiracy theorists.”

The latter is certainly hard for a spy fiction writer to deny.

However our worst fears were vindicated in June this year when it was revealed that West Midlands police had installed no less than 169 ANPR (automatic number plate recognition) cameras, 49 CCTV cameras and 72 "covert" cameras in two predominately Muslim areas in Birmingham, one of which was Sparkbrook. There is probably no other square mile on the planet that was so closely monitored

It is significant that senior police officers, who were working in collaboration with MI5, now stand accused of misleading their local council in order to erect this system and as a result face disciplinary hearings.

But the really significant point is that the spying network was solely authorised by a committee in ACPO, the Association of Chief Police Officers, which some of you will know is still private company and therefore safe from Freedom of Information requests.

Operation Champion, as it was known, has no statutory authority; there was to be no independent oversight of the system; and of course it was never discussed in Parliament.

How could it be?

It was plainly illegal from the outset because it violated rights guaranteeing privacy and freedom from discrimination (Articles 8 and 14 of the Human Rights Act)

Bags have since been placed over these cameras, but ask yourself why the whole system hasn’t been dismantled.  There can be only answer: the suspension of surveillance is a temporary measure.

I wasn’t surprised when I read the Guardian exposé by Paul Lewis.  ACPO has got form. In the past the Association initiated the police photographic and film database of legitimate protestors, and arranged the expenditure of over £35 million on 10,000 hidden cameras - Automatic number plate recognition system which is being routinely abused by those who have access to real time surveillance.

In these three surveillance systems we see what Britain will become if we don’t define and set the limits of state surveillance now.

But one of the problems is that surveillance has become such a part of our lives since 1997 that we don’t really notice it.

The other day I was on a train to Edinburgh. There was camera at each end of every carriage. There were cameras in the spaces between the carriages, plus a notice informing passengers that the CCTV was for passengers’ protection. And when I got to Edinburgh I found a café kiosk crowned with fourteen cameras.

It’s becoming impossible to escape the weight of the state’s gaze. Even if you reassure yourself that no one is watching, there is always the possibility that someone is. And there is the absolute certainty that surveillance systems will be abused in the future.  Just for a moment imagine life when face recognition technology is deployed in the CCTV cameras that are already installed in our public spaces. Using photographs scanned from public sources – Facebook especially- the authorities will be able to know where you are.

That will be the end the right of anonymity; of being your private self in public. And at that point we will have lost the battle.

It is a future I fear. But our children already know all about it.

According to a recent report from the University of Hull some 85 percent of schools deploy CCTV or are considering it. Our schools are being turned into prisons as our children are groomed for the surveillance society of the future.

In Yorkshire where there is a policy of not asking parents for their permission to film and store footage of their children, they have really got the bit between their teeth. At Huntington school there are more cameras than in the whole of the town centre – 113 compared to 75.

CCTV is everywhere in schools  – corridors, changing rooms, classrooms and lavatories. The possibilities of voyeurism are obvious.

But I am glad to say that some parents and even pupils are beginning to object. Last year the students at Loughton School refused to be taught in classrooms where cameras had been installed.

The headmaster said “they are there to drive up standards.’ What absolute cobblers.

Studies suggest that there are already over 4 million CCTV cameras here. The figures are doubted by some – notably by David Miliband,  whom I interviewed the other day. But look around London and you will begin to wonder if this is an underestimate.

What we do know is that about £500 million was spent on CCTV between 1996 and 2006, without any great benefit. The number of crimes solved by surveillance is going down. Even the police admit that CCTV solves just 3 per cent of burglaries and that only one crime in every 1,000 is solved by CCTV.  Is that value for money? I don’t think so, unless of course these cameras are more of an investment for the day when we have a tightly controlled and supervised society.

I want now to come on to the subject of privacy and what it means to us.

Writing in the Times about CCTV and other privacy issues, David Aaronovitch declared that he didn’t mind being watched by CCTV cameras. Then he came out with this remarkable sentence “Many of us are prepared to trade our contested rights to anonymity in order to reduce the agonies of those whose kids and siblings are the victims of unfound killers or attackers.”

The first thing to say about this statement is that rights are no less important for being contested by New Labour and Mr. Aaronovitch.

The second is that it contains the fallacy that the loss of privacy can be traded for the safety children. The same fallacy exists in the argument about terror laws – you cannot exchange liberty for security.

And the third point is that the writer obviously has no concept of the fundamental importance of privacy to a properly functioning of democracy. He may not care about his privacy  - or who is watching him – but the rest of us should.

Surveillance is about power– rarely safety or security, and this is why it so vital to keep the issue at the front of our minds.

The level of monitoring in Britain is clearly not just for our safety – it allows the authorities greater knowledge and control of the public’s movements and communications. That gives them much greater power over each one us, because once a person loses his privacy to a suspicious state he becomes that much less autonomous. He becomes answerable for his actions in a way that is not simply Un-British -  if we are no longer allowed to move and speak freely or to be anonymous we lose an essential quality of being human.

Frame by frame, we become the subject of the state, which may then draw the wrong conclusions about our behaviour and begin to regard our actions as sinister.

Nor should we trust public authorities to keep our information safely and use it properly. I never have and I have been proved right. There have been huge numbers of losses of personal information from public databases to say nothing of such stories as the Criminal Record Bureau wrongly labelling 2,300 people as convicted criminals.  

Yet they still keep trying to sell us the idea that we are being looked after by a caring and protective state, that we don’t really know what is good for us, that we can’t live our lives without being nudged and chivvied and monitored by authority.

I object to this institutionalised condescension. Not only because they have got it the wrong way round – they are our servants – but also because this official this attitude and our passivity are both extremely dangerous

From Carlisle to Huntington, from Birmingham to Loughton, surveillance systems are slowly taking hold of this country, and reducing our autonomy as individuals. This has devastating effects for the quality of our democracy, the responsiveness and performance of government.

The ordinary person’s privacy is essential to a properly functioning democracy.  And privacy is only maintained through vigilance and resistance. In 1765 John Wilkes fought the intrusions of the state on the issue of general warrants, when the king’s men marched into a Mr. Entick’s house and, looking for evidence against Wilkes, seized Entick’s personal papers.  Eight years later Entick won his case and thus it was that those two men embedded the notion of the right to privacy in Common Law. That right is guaranteed by the Human Rights act but as we saw in Birmingham, the police didn’t think twice before mounting their illegal surveillance operation.  We are fighting the battle now – against Murdoch, web intrusion and government - and it is vital that we win it for the next generation.

I want to end with a quotation from the great Lord Bingham who died on 11 September. He freely confessed the difficulties of judging Article 8 of the Human Rights Act - deciding whether privacy had been illegally violated - but he argued that this was no reason to throw our hands in the air. In his speech at the Convention on Modern Liberty, he stated:

The possession of great powers by the state should prompt a principled determination to ensure that the permissible exercise of such powers is strictly defined, regulated and monitored so as to guarantee that any intrusion into liberty and privacy of the individual is fully justified by an obviously superior community interest.

Nothing else needs to be said. We just need to make sure it happens.

Henry Porter's novel The Dying Light is just out in paperback in the UK

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