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The Surveillance State Arrives
England Swings Like a Pan-Tilt-Zoom Camera Do!
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As someone who studied English history as an undergraduate and then went on to do two postgraduate degrees at the University of London I have to admit to lifelong Anglophilia. Nevertheless, I sometimes continue to be astonished at how differently John Bull and Yankee Doodle view, in particular, the relationship that one has with the state. This is particularly true regarding how the two peoples value their individual liberties and personal responsibilities relative to what the state permits them to have and do. Perhaps that fundamental difference explains in part the American Revolution given the essentially Hobbesian views that many Englishmen likely hold regarding their monarchy.

Much of my interaction with current British culture is by way of television, with mysteries and crime dramas predominating. As a general rule, the English appear to regard their police more favorably than do their American counterparts, possibly a result of concerns over the recent militarization of law and order in the US. But it might also be because the British public sees things differently, expecting that the police, as guardians of the prevailing social order, have some kind of inherent unwritten right to behave in peremptory fashion.

Indeed, heavy doses of British television produced for the home audience invite consideration of the differences in perception that are manifest in two cultures that more-or-less speak the same language. If art does truly imitate life, then what is on the screen must surely reflect the dominant perception of reality in Britain just as American shows like “24” mirrored a pervasive view of how to deal with terrorism in the wake of 9/11.

On one British mystery offering Midsomer Murders I watched as two detectives went around to a man’s home to interview him. He was not home and even though the cops did not have a search warrant, they decided it might be a good thing to enter and have a look around. They went to the back of the house and tried to jiggle open the patio door only to discover that the homeowner, having experienced several break-ins, had personally rigged up a defensive device that shocked anyone trying the door handle. The detectives found another way into the house and while they were standing in the sitting room discussed whether they should charge the homeowner with the crime of “reckless endangerment” or not.

So much for an Englishman’s home being his castle, but the casual way in which the police decided to break into someone’s home was unfortunately all too reminiscent of some reckless SWAT arrests in the US in which innocent people sometimes wind up dead. In 2006 in Fairfax County Virginia, a swat team serving a gambling warrant killed an unarmed and non-threatening man outside his home. In neighboring Prince George’s County Maryland in 2008 police acting on false information broke down the door to the local mayor’s house, shot dead his two Labradors, one of which was running away, and handcuffed his elderly mother-in-law, forcing her to lie on the floor before realizing that they had make a mistake.

In another episode in yet another British mystery series Scott & Bailey, a 33 year old woman comes forward to tell police about her recollection of an event twenty years before. As a thirteen year old she was forced by her father to witness the burial of her brother in the basement of their home. Her brother had been killed by the father and when the basement was eventually excavated by police four more bodies of young men were discovered. The young woman’s reward was to be charged by the police with “assisting in an illegal burial” even though she was only thirteen at the time and forced by her father to participate. I thought to myself, “Wow, we really do see law and order differently!” The young woman was subsequently shunned because of her “crime” and eventually committed suicide, but her death was preceded by a lengthy car chase on the motorway connecting Manchester with the Irish Sea.

And the car chase was where the really interesting content surfaced. The police quickly identified the vehicle from a CCTV camera that had license plate identification capabilities. From that point on cameras followed the vehicle down the highway and were even able to zoom in close enough to make an identification of the occupants presumably using biometric or facial recognition software capability. I am sure the writers of the British script were fairly nonchalant about including the high speed pursuit by cameras but I was quite frankly shocked by it as it reveals a technical capability to intrude on one’s privacy that is, to put it mildly, breathtaking.

Speed and traffic monitoring cameras are in fact common in most of Europe, where state intrusion into areas that most Americans would regard as private has been a fact of life for many years. Speed cameras are also becoming more frequently observed in the United States, though not without some controversy over the purpose, reliability and legality of the technology. In states like Maryland where they are widely used it is even illegal for a driver to tip off another driver by blinking one’s lights when a camera or police speed trap is coming up because that would be “obstructing a police investigation.”

Britain is, in fact, the most surveilled major country in the world. It is estimated that more than 8,000 cameras in the police network alone are providing 26 million images every day, but the government refuses to make public the actual numbers. This is because in Britain as in the US the public is not allowed to know what the police are doing. British police reportedly want to increase the camera coverage by a factor of three within the next four years, claiming that it makes the public “safer.”

If one reads crime or missing person reports on the BBC the use of CCTV cameras to track the movement of individuals is routine nearly everywhere. The disappearance of Claudia Lawrence in York in 2009 was described in a BBC report that included the following: “The officer said she did not appear on any CCTV footage from her normal route to work on Thursday.”

On the basis of the CCTV, the police were able to reconstruct a three mile route through the city with reasonable assurance that they had not missed Lawrence, ruling out her having walked to work. That the police would be able to do that is astonishing, a level of government surveillance capability that is several generations beyond traffic and speed cameras.

Indeed, to judge how close we Americans are to complete surveillance it is helpful to look closely at those developments in the United Kingdom, which best provide some hint of what might be coming. Exploiting anti-terrorism legislation, the British government routinely monitors telephone calls and e-mail messages, much like the National Security Agency does illegally in the US. Cameras now provide continuous coverage of the centers of most cities and there is surveillance of all major roads and bridges by CCTV that is monitored both using software and by on duty officers before being stored for up to two years.

There is no legislation prohibiting what has been described as suspicion-less surveillance and one data base alone of images captured by the Automated Number Plate Recognition system (ANPR) has 17 billion items in its archive. It was originally intended to identify license plates of vehicles known or suspected of being involved in a crime, but it now records all vehicles passing by. One critic described the police as “…gathering details about people’s lives that it did not need to have.” It is all reminiscent of Winston Smith in “1984” whose television was watching him while he was doing exercises in front of it. Maybe George Orwell knew what was coming.

But to return to the car chase, I had to do some digging to find out whether the CCTV tracking of a moving vehicle was technically feasible. It is. The British ANPR system is set up to photograph a car’s license plate as well as the entire vehicle, to include an “admissible for identification purposes” picture of the driver and passengers. Date, time, and direction of travel are automatically recorded. Many of the CCTVs are fixed, but pan tilt zoom cameras that can locate and lock onto a target and also analyze it are used by many police forces and were featured in the security preparations for the 2012 London Olympics. They are capable of reading license plates and recording facial and whole body characteristics for identification and investigative purposes. Their “intelligence software” can also switch them from target to target. To use them in a surveillance role on a major highway would merely require spacing them closely enough to provide continuous coverage within their operational range.

The issue of the cameras themselves is distinct from how effective they are. The British police claim they prevent crime and make everyone “safer” but are a bit vague on the details. In one reported case a 17 year old girl was killed by a known sex offender who was identified six times by highway cameras without any of the leads provided by the technology being followed up on. And then there is the political aspect of total surveillance all the time. A local police force spent 3 million pounds placing 200 cameras in Muslim communities in Birmingham.

Mobile CCTV that permit one to cruise through neighborhoods with the camera scanning and analyzing license plates and faces as the vehicle drives by have also been developed and mounted in police cars both in Britain and the US. But of course, all the talk of cameras might be irrelevant. The United States is a leader in drone technology which makes it possible to take a quantum leap over CCTV and go directly to targeted surveillance of multiple suspects without the expense and vulnerability entailed in geographically dispersed fixed emplacements. Drones are already in the hands of a number of police forces, including one in Texas that is able to fire a Tazer or a so-called “stun baton.” So you can find, surveil and zap the bad guy all in one easy operation.

The serious point in all of this is that surveillance technology is moving ahead rapidly without any commensurate body of law or legal limitations on how and when it can be used. It’s beyond time for Washington to initiate new legislation regulating technical surveillance of individuals lest we willy-nilly conform to the British model, but as the government is also the prime consumer of the technology there is little likelihood of that happening. Very soon that buzzing in your ear could very well be a drone hovering overhead.

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  1. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    This is an interesting and informative piece. However, as a European viewer of American crimes dramas, I have to observe that American TV cops behave in as heavy handed a manner ; constantly threatening witnesses with getting banged up for misdemeanours of long ago, and carrying just blackmail with no sign of a lawyer present and with a sarcastic , superior attitude . The end justifies the means seems to be the watchword of international TV cops, and the means come with as surly and smarted-assed and approach as possible.

  2. map says:

    Unfortunately, all of this tech is easily defeated by a determined assailant. Wear a hoody with sunglasses and a fake beard and nothing will be recognized. License plate readers can be blocked. Nothing like this matters to a person determined to avoid detection. Which is probably why cameras have not deterred or even captured criminals.

    TV shows are very stylized and tend to exaggerate capabilities. Most CSI forensics does not even work and is easy to defeat. Cybercrime forensic tools are powerful but limited and, if you know what you are looking for, can be easily circumvented.

    You can now even wear your open personal surveillance gear and record authorities you interact with.

    No, the real issue is the obvious anarcho-tyranny: people being abused by this data by rogue officials.

  3. Liberty, diversity or equality.

    Choose one.

  4. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    What is the purpose of the police surveillance state? To make you safer? Any citizen who would allow themselves to believe that is as dumb as a rock. Robert Harris wrote a novel called “Fatherland”(What If Hitler Had Won), set in 1964. After reading it, I realized how closely the landscape of the novel resembled society in Europe and America. Hitler might as well as won because everything that dictator was aiming for then has pretty much come true today, and beyond that. The essentially dictatorial nature of the EU, the militarization of police forces, the increasing surveillance of the EU citizen, will reach a point where the velvet glove of the State will be eventually removed. Only problem is too many love the servitude, love living on their knees, subservient to governments. War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. Government has become the predator and you are the prey.

  5. Unit472 says:

    The only positive to all this is we can rid ourselves of most of our actual police officers and it will make our streets safer. Why have traffic cops if your own automobile can report your violations to a DMV computer? California and other states are also looking to replace fuel taxes with mileage taxes since new cars don’t use as much, if any, fuel to power them. Married to an on board GPS system where your car was at any given time would be available to police and , perhaps, your wife’s attorney! I bought a GPS jammer a few years ago when my employer began using GPS in company vehicles for surveillance purposes which they had, initially, promised they would never do. The temptation to spy on an employee was just too great to resist.

  6. Art M says:

    “Indeed, heavy doses of British television produced for the home audience invite consideration of the differences in perception that are manifest in two cultures that more-or-less speak the same language.”

    First of all, Mr. Giraldi, any individual who resorts to prime time television content as some sort of proof of some sort of reality, well, good luck with that, but excuse me if I just sort of reach over here and turn off the set – and you. What’s next, you gonna dangle Doogie Houser as the source of Obamacare? Foreign Policy set by The Man From Uncle? You going to send Gomer Pyle to Afghanistan?

    Oh, but we don’t like CCTV surveillance. Really? You know who else doesn’t like it? Ray Rice.

    But, gee, how long has this “surveillance” been going on. (Now, realizing that TV and motion pictures share the same parents, I present this only as a matter of historical timing.) Let’s go back to the thrilling days of yesteryear, specifically 1952, and muse the blockbuster film “Big Jim McLain”, starring that great American icon, John Wayne and his trusty side-kick (for this movie anyway) James Arness as two agents of the House Un-American Activities Committee (who would have what legal authority to do what, exactly?). The movie is an unabashed, anti-commie propaganda stock; however, at approx 6:50 into the movie, the two stalwart defenders of American freedom, Wayne and Arness, “check out” their surveillance equipment by bugging the hotel room next door – which just happens to be occupied by newlyweds. Wayne quips to Arness, “Who do you think you’re workin’ for? Dr. Kinsey?” to which Arness replies (with more prescience than they thought at the time) “Well, I gotta check the gadgets and see if they work. Besides, it proves they’re really a honeymoon couple.”

    And that was 1952!

    Today, of course, we are much more modern. Today we use sonogram technology to not only get the audio, but the video as well. Ah, progress.

    Oh, but you are really mad at the cops, because they are becoming too militarized? I won’t say that opinion isn’t well earned, but you are living in a country that spends more on the military than the rest of the word COMBINED, and, apparently, possesses a singular desire to piss of every other human being on this planet! But you worry because the police are acting military, what, exactly, do you expect? The head of the most invasive surveillance machine in the history of the world sat in front of God, Congress, and everybody else and calmly lied his asshat off and that POS still has his job. The head of the IRS has destroyed evidence and similarly lied and she still has her job. That useless waste of flesh and air that we call an Attorney General, who has sold automatic weapons to Mexican drug cartels still has his job. It’s not the machines or the equipment, it is the people who order the people to use that equipment. But, you go ahead and complain about CCTVs, you can handle that.

  7. rod1963 says:

    Do you use a Iphone, Ipad, Android or any sort of laptop with a Wifi connection. If so then the police and government can track you anytime and monitor your voicemail, internet connections, etc.

    So why worry about some cameras when the authorities know where you are 24 hrs a day along with who you talk to, your viewing and posting habits, etc.

    Then a lot of you spill your guts and privacy onto social media so people like Zuckerberg can get even richer.

    And the great thing is, you willingly do it to yourself.

    So before complaining about the cameras, how about ditching all the tracking gear you already carry.

  8. Dave37 says:

    Here in the bay area, cameras were installed at red lights because people were running them, it was actually a hazard to stop for a yellow light as you might get rear ended. Better now? Well less people running red lights but a lot of people getting tickets for not stopping in time for yellow lights; and oh sorry but it turns out when tested some of the systems were set up with too short of a time on some lights, which benefits the camera companies as they get a big cut of the fine. But it’s all fixed now even though no one is testing the systems except for the camera company.

  9. Laz says:

    @ map: I build police vehicles and I’ve installed license plate readers on several vehicles now. The only way to really spoof the reader is to cover or remove the plate.

    • Replies: @map
  10. map says:


    A powerful enough infrared LED can blind the UV capabilities of any camera.

    • Replies: @Laz
  11. Laz says:

    Yeah, there’s no way anybody is going to notice that and investigate/follow you through your disabling of the cameras. The whole idea is NOT to attract attention.

    • Replies: @map
  12. map says:

    These are not pinhole cameras. They are very visible. Tracking is pretty limited.

  13. @Anonymous

    Same with Canadians. This is why I say Americans really couldn’t be fascist if they wanted to be. I don’t think even old stock Anglo-Americans ever inculcated that sort of relationship with the State.

  14. KA says:

    “But due to a quirk of federal secrecy rules, such remarks generally cannot be made even now by those who work for the U.S. government and hold active security clearances. In fact, U.S. officials, even those on Capitol Hill, are routinely admonished not to mention the existence of an Israeli nuclear arsenal and occasionally punished when they do so.”

    Surveillance becomes unnecessary when fear can impose silence so easily and without offerring any faintest reason why it is demanding such level of secrecy .Any possiblity of controversy will simply melt down any courage or interest to dig any deeper beyond the surface.

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