This is how it begins: gently, innocuously. And, always, for a Good Reason.
The Oregonian reports that Portland, Oregon, Police Chief Mike Reese:
wants to put up video surveillance cameras on private buildings in Old Town and Chinatown that would help officers monitor drug deals on certain sidewalks, intersections or other public spaces.
Not that there aren’t already surveillance cameras in Portland. But until now, the police have merely been encouraging private property owners to put up cameras. Reese is going before the City Council tonight to request a fundamental change in policy: Now the police department will be installing–and monitoring–cameras.
It’s not a new idea. Seattle police have nine cameras in and around Pioneer Square, and their very own drone surveillance helicopter. Tacoma police have surveillance cameras in residential as well as business districts. In Chicago, police have about 1,500 surveillance cameras in place.
But this is just the beginning.
According to a study by Privacy International, the country in Europe with the worst privacy is, not Romania, not Bulgaria, but Britain. The land of Magna Carta is an “endemic surveillance society” like Russia and China.
Let me tell you how the Brits got to the point where the average Londoner appears on camera 300 times a day.
In 1993 two ten-year-old boys kidnapped two-year-old Jamie Bulger from a shopping center in a suburb of Liverpool, then tortured and killed him. The mall’s gut-wrenching closed circuit television (CCTV) image of little Jamie walking away hand in hand with one of his murderers played repeatedly on British television. Criminologists pronounced the footage “incredibly helpful” to police. And it was. It showed they should be looking for two young boys, not an adult pedophile.
The boys’ subsequent arrest and conviction led to a widespread belief that surveillance cameras reduce violent crime.
According to Intelligent Life, the Brits spent over $7.6 billion installing and maintaining surveillance cameras between 1994 and 2004.
For a Good Reason.
Nobody knows how many surveillance cameras there are in Britain now. Probably between two million and four million, in over 500 cities and towns across the tiny island.
And they’re used for, well, just about anything. To see if punt operators are using unauthorized landing places, in Cambridge. To follow a family suspected of giving a false address on a school application, in Poole. According to Intelligent Life:
three-quarters of Britain’s local authorities have used [surveillance cameras] as a weapon in the unceasing fight against dog fouling and putting the rubbish out too early.
But even this is just the beginning.
In October, 2007, the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the EU presented a policy paper to The Future Group, a high-level EU advisory group on the future of European home affairs policy. (Here’s a horrifying analysis of the paper by Statewatch.) The paper envisions a future in which:
Every object the individual uses, every transaction they make and almost everywhere they go will create a detailed digital record. This will generate a wealth of information for public security organisations, and create huge opportunities for more effective and productive public security efforts.
If that doesn’t give you cold chills, listen to Franco Frattini, Italy’s Foreign Minister until last November. Before that, he was the EU Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security and vice president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive body:
There is a need to overcome the traditional dogma of seeing collective security and individual freedom as two opposed concepts which exclude each other. Individual rights can only flourish in an atmosphere of collective security.
We are trading our individual freedom away in the hopes of cutting down on crime and making the streets safer.
But a 2005 British Home Office report found that “most [surveillance camera] systems revealed little overall effect on crime levels.” The head of the CCTV department at the Metropolitan Police said three percent of crimes in London were solved by surveillance cameras in 2006. In 2008, according to Big Brother Watch, one crime was solved for every thousand surveillance cameras. Improving street lighting actually has more of an effect on crime rates.
Then-UK Information Minister Richard Thomas said, in 2006:
Two years ago I warned that we were in danger of sleepwalking into a surveillance society. Today I fear that we are in fact waking up to a surveillance society that is already all around us.
Nothing our government can do will ever make us entirely safe. But, left to its own devices, our government can and will, with the best of intentions, deprive us entirely of our individual freedoms. Britain and Europe are almost there. Are we going to sleepwalk into a surveillance society right behind them?