George Orwell’s Big Brother is terrifying. Not as bad as the TV show that came to take his name, naturally, but – if I can come over all high-school-English-essay for a moment, Orwell’s dystopic vision of a world of perpetual surveillance was the ultimate privacy nightmare. So it’s unfortunate that the English town of Middlesbrough has implemented one of his most sinister visions – surveillance cameras that bark orders at you.
In 1984, the telescreens screens are two-way – that is, they enable the Thought Police to spy on you as well as disseminating propaganda everywhere. In Middlesbrough, they recently fitted speakers to 7 of the town’s 158 security cameras, and the monitoring team have been using the speakers to immediately reprimand antisocial behavior, as the Mail on Sunday noted:
[I] watched as a cyclist riding through a pedestrian area was ordered to stop.
‘Would the young man on the bike please get off and walk as he is riding in a pedestrian area,’ came the command.
The surprised youth stopped, and looked about. A look of horror spread across his face as he realised the voice was referring to him.
He dismounted and wheeled his bike through the crowded streets, as instructed.
Imagine the terrible shock you’d get! But soon this will be ubiquitous, presumably, and then we’ll just get used to the idea that when we’re in the street, faceless people can tell us what to do. But it’s not a totalitarian thing, right? It’s for our protection. As the mayor behind the scheme, Ken Mallon (a former policeman who’s nicknamed RoboCop) explained to the Mail, “Put it this way, we never have requests to remove them.”
In a way, it’s actually more honest. CCTV cameras can be very unobtrusive. Whereas if someone barks orders at you, at least you know you’re being watched!
The UK has a particularly large number of security cameras – over 5 million. Many, especially in central London, date from the days of the IRA. And the recent introduction of congestion charges has led to an additional blanketing of cameras on the streets. Walking around London, you also see private cameras everywhere – generally they’re marked with yellow stickers showing who retains the information.
The cameras were credited for the rapid speed with which the London bombers (and their copycats) were identified by authorities, who sifted through over 2500 pieces of CCTV footage. The cameras, of course, have also been very helpful to wacky conspiracy theorists who seek to prove that the Government staged the whole thing.
As usual, the defence offered to those who complain about the intrusiveness is that the innocent have nothing to fear. That’s what we heard when they tried to roll back civil liberties after 9/11 as well. But the innocent have to suffer considerable discomfort, with the unnerving sensation that everything they do is being watched. This unnerves many people. Others love being on camera. But that, as Hotdogs’ case has shown, can be problematic as well.
We are clearly going to have to get used to universal surveillance. I’m writing this on a Mac with a camera built into it, and even though it’s supposed to have a green light when activated, I assume a clever programmer could get around it. (Boy, the footage’d be boring though). The previous Mac iSight cameras had an iris you could close for privacy, but this one’s always there. What’s more, soon everyone will have 3G phones with cameras in them. It means the chances of guaranteed, camera-free privacy are genuinely slim. It also means ever more crappy amateur footage uploaded to YouTube. Neither of these prospects are exactly promising.
But the guy who operates the scheme, Jack Bonner, has some reassuring words for those worried about civil liberties:
Mr Bonner said: ‘We always make the requests polite, and if the offender obeys, the operator adds ‘thank you’. We think that’s a nice finishing touch.
Yes – if we’re going to have thought police, the least we can do is make them civil.
However the ubiquitous cameras in Middlesbrough could at least have one positive effect. Mark Viduka plays for the local football team, and as per one of my favourite bits of football slander (note its ubiquity!), the cameras will help us determine conclusively whether Viduka did in fact “eat all the pies”.
PS: Note that the previous linked image of Viduka with pies is Photoshopped.
PPS: Before you comment, I know Middlesbrough is not in London, but I liked the title.