Even before I realised that the CCTV camera on the building opposite my flat could be, and indeed had been, swivelled to look directly into my bedroom window, I was never too keen on constant camera observation, and not just because I’m not terrifically photogenic either.
But with the police evidently working hard over the last few months to negotiate for even more access to ever more detailed footage, the issue of CCTV surveillance has taken on a whole new menacing aspect this week.
Firstly, it was announced yesterday that Gordon Brown’s cuddly new authoritarian Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has waived parts of the Data Protection Act to allow the Metropolitan Police to have access to real-time data from London’s congestion charge cameras – giving the police the ability to track all the vehicles which enter or leave the congestion charge zone, live. In an implicit acknowledgement of just how objectionable these new police powers are, the Home Secretary has actually provided Transport for London (the organisation which owns the cameras) with special documentation exempting them from legal action from drivers who might have concerns about the invasion of their privacy (as reported here, eg). As mentioned in this BBC report, the police can currently only ask for vehicle data on a case by case basis: their new powers give them access to all the data from the London cameras in real time.
Interestingly, the BBC reported the Home Office as “stressing” that the police “will only be able to use the data for national security purposes and not to fight ordinary crime.” So could this have meant that the police were finally acknowledging the very thin evidence for the effectiveness CCTV in fighting ordinary crime and striving to find a use for it fighting terrorism instead? Terrorism being, as we all know, a most extraordinary type of crime necessitating the renunciation of a staggering number and variety of the freedoms and liberties enjoyed by civilised society.
Alas, no. Hard on the heels of this outrage came the news today of an accidentally leaked document produced by the Home Office, containing proposals to give police the powers to track drivers throughout the whole of England and Wales via the growing network of cameras equipped with automatic number plate recognition technology, again in real time. The Home Office, in a statement which we can obviously judge for ourselves, has denied that it is showing a disregard for public opinion and civil liberties. Rather, as quoted in the the Guardian, they are claiming that “the police need the data from the cameras, which can read and store every passing numberplate, ‘for all crime fighting purposes’.” Clearly, public concerns would be grossly unfounded, and the civil liberties case laughably overstated.
What the government is doing is showing again not just its obsession with large scale IT projects and the seductive novelty of being able to collect lots of people’s personal data in lots of different databases and link it all up, but, yet again, its sheer thoughtlessness and glib lack of concern about freedom in its dogged belief that its own legislating activity and increased police powers will make us more secure. Far better, although of course it’s only wishful thinking, if they would frankly acknowledge that no government will ever be able to guarantee national security, and firmly assert a total commitment to maintaining our historic and democratic rights and liberties.