Closed Circuit Britain

Graffiti by Banksy. London, April 2008.

It was, and likely remains, standard practice for troops deploying to our current theatres of war to be briefed by an official from the British equivalent of the NSA, known as GCHQ. Our man was a rather dusty-looking character, who seemed more like an academic than a spook, as he ambled out onto a stage to give us a briefing on information security. Spying on each other, he explained to the gathered personnel, is entirely run of the mill for the constituent nations in an international coalition.

So, a boyishly handsome and uniformed version of myself thought, if spying on our international buddies in this forthcoming and rather well-marketed global fight for freedom is a banality, it should not be too much of shock when it emerges that the nations involved spy on their own citizens. To be frank, I did not think this at the time. But had I done so, I would have been onto something.

George Osborne, British Chancellor of the Exchequer and one of the main proponents of ‘scorched earth’ public service cuts in this country, announced recently that “The intelligence services are on the front line too…often heroically, these fellow citizens protect us and our way of life…we will protect them in return, with a 3.4% increase in their…budget

So precisely what constitutes the way of life that these heroic citizens are protecting? Indeed how did they manage to protect it so well that they have earned themselves a pay rise in these lean times? And what will they spend their money on?

Welcome to Surveillance Britain, where the way of life is one of insistent state scrutiny. British citizens, as it turns out, are the most intensely watched on earth. Invasive observation is so normal for us we make China look like rather lax. In fact closed-circuit television cameras are so common that they are hardly worth mentioning any more.

Except that they are. There is approximately one CCTV camera for every fourteen citizens in the UK . Some estimates indicate that an average citizen will be visually recorded up to 300 times per day while going about their business, increasingly by cameras which feature face recognition and some manner of audio capacity.

Marble Arch. London, 2005.
Camera installation, Marble Arch. London, 2005.

The co-writer of a 2006 Surveillance Studies Network report on the topic suggests that “We really do have a society which is premised both on state secrecy and the state not giving up its supposed right to keep information under control while, at the same time, wanting to know as much as it can about us. ”

In 2009, according to the BBC , the Brit’s retained their rather dubious title as the most watched population in the world, despite the official estimates on the sheer number of CCTV cameras being revised down by around a million. That we are not sure how many cameras exist (and by such a large margin!) seems notable in itself.

The same 2009 BBC report pointed out that the Shetland Islands Council – the local government body of that tiny archipelago off the blustery coast of Scotland, with its population of 22,000 – has more CCTV cameras at its disposal than the San Francisco Police Department.

Moreover, in terms of “endemic surveillance” Britain is the least democratic democracy and we sit in a bottom five alongside Russia, Malaysia and China. In the country which gave the world the dystopian vision of 1984, it has been submitted that “…it is pointless to talk about surveillance society in the future tense.

Public attitudes to CCTV, according to the (come on, I have to say it once) Orwellian-sounding Information Commissioner’s report, tend to pendulum between indifference and resignation and it is suggested therein that ‘Even among young people…objectors appear relatively infrequent

With this in mind, the recent scandal regarding Edward Snowden and the tactic of mass information gathering through the internet by the likes of GCHQ seems to be less a revelation and much more of a confirmation of surveillance and control by the state. But we should recall, as our Foreign Minister William Hague pointed out with a straight face recently, that “…if you are a law-abiding citizen of this country going about your business…you have nothing to fear about the British state or intelligence agencies…” Which I can tell you is a huge relief for all of us.


Photographs courtesy of  Jordan Martorell  and  Improbulus. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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