Montréal, le 6 mars 1999
Numéro 32
(page 6)
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 by Ralph Maddocks
          The Romans, as strong believers in divination, used to employ soothsayers to interpret omens as a means of foretelling the future. To avoid evil they used a phrase absit omen which means something like « may the omen be absent ». While certainly not a soothsayer, it is sometimes hard to avoid the feeling that one is peering into the future, even when that is not the intention.
World under surveillance 

          Some time ago, I wrote how pervasive the thousands of cameras in the United Kingdom had become, citing the presence of over 150 000 cameras (HAVE ORWELL'S PREDICTIONS COME TRUE? le QL no28). A statistic which caught my eye the other day in a UK newspaper estimated the total number of cameras as being now over one million. Looking further into this matter of intrusion into our privacy I found many other examples of the use of technology at work in what now seems to be a co-ordinated world wide attack on our liberty and privacy.  
          That democratic country, so beloved by the gourmet Canadian politician who prefers pepper on his plate, Indonesia, is one of the worst offenders in the appalling treatment of its citizens. In fact many of the abuses in East Timor would not have been possible without the support of companies from the so-called democracies of the West. To cite just a few companies supplying the Indonesian government with surveillance and targeting technology, we find France’s Morpho Systems, England’s EEV Night Vision, Marconi Radar and Control Systems and Siemens Plessey Defence Systems. In addition there are the USA’s  Rockwell International Corporation and SWS Security. These are just a few of the corporations alleged to be supplying the identification systems needed to pursue ethnic cleansing programmes.  
          Lest Canadian readers become too virtuously indignant about these companies, it should be pointed out that Canada contributes its share of technology to totalitarian governments. Codalex (Canada) is among the suppliers of such technology to Nigeria along with some of the companies mentioned above. Even though a given technology may seem to be benign, the uses to which it is put are most often far from being benign.   
          The justification offered by most of the companies involved in this trade is identical to that advanced in the arms trade, i.e. that the technology is neutral. Technology can never be neutral, there will always be some monster waiting around the corner to use it for some sinister purpose. 
          Thailand, that land of seemingly gentle people, has an astonishing array of databases most of them provided by our southern neighbour. They include: a National Election System, a National Tax Collection System, a Central Population Database, a Political Party Database, a Voters list, a Political Member Database, an Electronic Minority Group Registration System, an Electronic Fingerprint Identification System, an Electronic Face Identification System, a Population and House Report System, a Village Information System, a Public Opinion System, Criminal Investigation System, National Security System, Social Security System, Passport Control System, Driver Control System, Gun Registration, Family Registration, Alien Control System and Immigration Control System. 
          The Thailand Central Population Database and ID card system, was developed by the US company, Control Data Systems and involves sophisticated intelligence that has since been used for political purposes by the Thai military. This integrated system creates an ID card, electronic fingerprint and facial image, and an electronic data link involving the entire population. It spans most government agencies and is controlled by the powerful Interior Ministry. The database was designed after extensive discussions between the Thai authorities and Control Data. 
          When the system was implemented, the evil was further compounded by the Smithsonian Institute, which, presumably in a moment of mental aberration, gave the Thai Government an award for the « Brave use of Technology »! Subsequently, the Thai Interior Ministry has waved this award around in the face of the system’s critics just as though it was a Nobel peace prize. 
Meanwhile, in the States... 
          In November 1998, there was an item in a US newspaper reporting that in North Carolina the Republican Party planned to videotape voters. This action drew the attention of the federal authorities, who warned that « thinly veiled » attempts at minority intimidation would not be tolerated. The defence offered by the Republican party officials was quite interesting. They claimed that it was to prevent voter fraud, citing some districts where voters exercised their franchise more than once! Where did you hear that one before? 
          The federal authorities said that it was an offence under the Voting Rights Act and that no videotaping would be allowed nearer than 50 feet away from the polls, the same restriction applying to anyone who may try to influence a voter on his or her way to vote. 
          However, a state GOP spokesman said that the party discouraged anyone from targeting predominantly black districts, and offered the additional nugget that, « Any poll watching program we've supported, targets heavily Democratic voter registration precincts », he said. « It doesn't target any racial group. » An interesting distinction. It is alright to target your political opponents provided that they are not black. 
          Nearer home, in Providence, Rhode Island, the mayor called for secret surveillance cameras to monitor activities on certain downtown streets which he declined to name. His proposal ushers Providence into the growing US trend of electronic policing of public places. As in other cities, the mayor's plan has met opposition from civil libertarians who argue that surveillance cameras violate the privacy of law-abiding people. When questioned, the chief of police adamantly refused to discuss the matter, even refusing to discuss whether they had used such cameras in the past.  
          The debate rages throughout the USA as the use of high-tech surveillance cameras proliferates across the country. Proponents say the cameras have been successful in reducing crime. Critics say that cameras provide only a false sense of security and that crime simply moves to other areas. They even point to some communities which have unplugged their cameras over concerns about privacy. 
          The New York police claim that crime in the public housing projects has been cut by 30 to 50%. The ACLU reported that in 1973, Times Square had hosted a number of cameras but the project was abandoned after only ten arrests were made. 
          Baltimore, which has a very high crime rate, started a video patrol in 1996, using 16 cameras, trained on the downtown area. Three years later, they say it has been an unqualified success with crime decreasing by 33%. So successful was it that another 16 cameras have been added. 
          One big difference between Baltimore and Providence was that in Baltimore they posted large signs warning pedestrians and others that the area was under surveillance. 
          While Canada’s hidden cameras seem to be installed largely in pharmacies, dépanneurs, gas stations, ATMs, banks and other public buildings, there seems to be no real objection to their use. If cameras are to be trained on the streets will they be peering into our windows by design? The latest strain of cameras can see and hear a great deal more than the unaided eye or ear can. Even if they may be of benefit in the reduction of street crime one can raise the same old and valid arguments. The question that doesn’t seem to get asked, and certainly doesn’t get answered, is what use will be made of all this technology in the future. Will surveillance tapes be made immediately available to the media for screening or broadcasting? Will they be used to monitor political demonstrations or public protest groups? The temptation will certainly exist and the politician able to resist the temptation to reduce the liberty of the electorate is rare. Absit omen indeed.   
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