|Montréal, 4 août 2001 / No 86|
by Ralph Maddocks
Frequent readers of this august journal will doubtless have already concluded that one of the subjects that I find endlessly fascinating and disturbing, is the continuing invasion of our privacy, especially by an exponentially growing number of ubiquitous public cameras. Previous articles have referred to the face scanning street cameras of Newham, London England (see HAVE ORWELL'S PREDICTIONS COME TRUE?, le QL,
It is now estimated that there are over one and a half million cameras
installed and hard at work in Britain, one per 40 residents in fact. These
days it is hard to imagine a time when the British public was ever, let
alone passionately, concerned about information privacy. Yet, in the late
1960s, backbenchers in the UK Parliament introduced a variety of troublesome
privacy Bills, each of which the government of the day was at some pains
to derail. Then, in 1970, a government established committee investigated
the subject of privacy and its first action was to conduct an opinion poll.
The results were a surprise to everyone. Of all the concerns then expressed
– nuclear war, economic depression or communist infiltration – none was
greater than the fear that the government might construct a central computer
databank. In those times the view expressed by George Orwell was a nightmare
still waiting to happen.
Today, people seem to think that computers have been a boon, computer technology is available to almost everyone, information is more freely and readily available than ever before and communication is cheap and reliable. Like the technology of the automobile before it, computers have been absorbed without protest. So much so in fact that today's Britain has transformed itself into a surveillance state. Privacy protection is scarce, data protection law is weak, and intrusive technologies are exploited in a climate that is totally hostile to privacy. In a survey about surveillance cameras only thirty-six per cent of those surveyed did not agree with the proposition
It appears that the desensitisation of people towards this intrusive technology is widespread and taking hold. It is extremely rare for British media to report on privacy violations, in part because the media view privacy protection as a direct threat to freedom of the press. The link between State surveillance and privacy seems not to be viewed as being different in nature. Some claim that the problem is semantic and argue that the term
A recent innovation in the use of cameras on UK roads is the invention and installation of a new system called SPEEDCHECK SVVD or SPECS which went online recently, being installed initially on all major roads and highways. Almost anonymous, consisting of a tall blue coloured pole with a small antenna, the new cameras caught
Vehicle numberplates are read and the precise time of each observation recorded and, as the vehicle passes the second camera, the numberplate records are matched, and an average speed for the vehicle is calculated. If this is above the trigger speed, the detection technology used in these cameras makes a number of measurements. The device records automatically the date, the precise time, location and speed of the offending vehicle, along with a detailed image of the front of the vehicle; recording clearly the colour, number plate, make, model and who is driving the vehicle.
The system is digital, works 24 hours a day, requires no film or flash, uses no radar and is better than 99% accurate in almost all weather conditions. The conventional cameras employed until now perform, in effect, a spot check so that drivers can slow down for a camera and then speed up once they are past it. The alleged reason for the new system is to
It would be naive in the extreme to assume that the reason given above is the truth; it would be equally naive to believe that it is only part of an effort to catch speeders. Once fully installed throughout the country the system has the obvious potential to keep track of every vehicle in the entire country at any given moment. Video surveillance has much more to do with imposing social control on the population than it does for ticketing speeders. Among all the sinister police state developments of the past two decades, this is probably the most all-embracing and represents perhaps the greatest threat to individual freedom. Andrew May, Assistant Chief Constable of South Wales, urged victims of domestic violence to conceal video cameras in their homes to collect evidence. This prompted Michael Jack, Minister for State at the Home Office to respond that the idea brought a
It is clear that the need for significant protection of privacy is becoming more urgent by the day, but this does not seem to be of concern to the British government. Recently, the Blair Government introduced the Criminal Justice Bill, establishing a national DNA database, limiting the right of freedom of movement and assembly, and significantly expanding police powers. If you are arrested you are obliged to provide fingerprints and palm prints, have a video and photograph taken and supply a DNA sample. In the event that you are charged and found not guilty, these samples will remain in the possession of the police. If you voluntarily supply such DNA and fingerprint samples, even though not accused of a crime, these too may be retained and used in other investigations unless you specifically refuse consent. If you do consent, then your written consent can never be withdrawn in the future should you change your mind.
The Blair government has published a green paper on a national identity card, and data-matching programs are already in use amongst various government agencies. Yet none of these initiatives are considered by the general public to be at all contentious. Such a disregard for privacy has always been widespread in British administrations. Ever since they first appeared, every television set in the nation must be registered. A TV licensing authority that requires all television dealers to notify the details of purchasers and requires all post offices to notify changes of address enforces the registration system. Perhaps most astonishing to North Americans is the fact that TV licence inspectors have the power to obtain and execute search warrants of private houses. Some 3000 such warrants are issued each year and yet the public seems to accept this heavy-handed and fascistic conduct with little or no reaction. Given the above then, it is perhaps not surprising that the most blatant symbol of the erosion of British privacy is the exponential increase in the use of Closed Circuit Video Television (CCTV) schemes.
In North America, citizens generally express their disgust and contempt by displaying an upraised middle digit. In Britain, the same gesture is to proffer two fingers, rather in the manner of the V for Victory sign made famous by Churchill. In continental Europe though, it is difficult for the ordinary citizen to protest because prosecution awaits those who insult officials; a state of affairs which simply feeds the arrogance of those officials.
The Europeanisation of Britain continues apace as a report in the Daily Mail headed
In Canada though there is a glimmer of hope, at least in the private sector. A recent report in the Ottawa Citizen made reference to the implications of the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPED) and the use of CCTV in private institutions such as banks and conveniences stores. The article was at some pains to point out that the Act may well not cover camera surveillance by the state and pointed out the obvious fact that Government bodies are covered by their own laws, which the paper characterised as
The Act, which came into effect last January, was used in a case in Yellowknife where the federal Privacy Commissioner, George Radwanski, told a Yellowknife security company that their installation of street surveillance cameras was unlawful. Mr. Radwanski was quoted as saying,
According to a lawyer quoted in the piece, a
The news of Mr. Radwanski's decision was not greeted by the plaudits of those who supply this equipment, and the spokesman for the Canadian Alarm and Security Association, Steve Kelly, was quoted making the usual fatuous remarks.
Sudbury has the dubious honour of being the first Canadian city to use closed-circuit television to monitor public streets. They have five cameras feeding into the Sudbury police station and they claim a 38% reduction in robberies and assaults. This may well be true, but what is not known is whether such crimes have increased in other nearby, unmonitored, areas.
More and more we see, in every demonstration, the use of face coverings of one kind or another. Perhaps the most obvious example was the fight against local oppression in Chiapas put up by the Zapatistas whose personal anonymity made life difficult for the Mexican forces. In the demonstrations of Seattle, Quebec and Genoa and even in the occupation this week, by the allegedly homeless, of a house in Montreal many participants covered their faces. Most of the faces stored in police databases are not those of criminals but those whom the state wishes to keep an eye on.
Undaunted by Radwanski's action in Yellowknife, Vancouver police are seeking the funds to install cameras in a crime ridden area of that city. The new BC government, perhaps in a moment of enlightenment, banished photo radar from the province's highways. One hopes that these small moves will lead to the abolition of this most pernicious invasion of the citizen's privacy and encourage other jurisdictions to follow suit. One can be optimistic still, even at my age.
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