|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
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
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
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.
de Ralph Maddocks