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My colleagues in the security business inform me that the United Kingdom is now the most constantly and thoroughly surveilled country on earth. Cameras provide continuous coverage of the centers of most cities and there is monitoring of all major roads and bridges by CCTV linked to monitors that can send one a ticket automatically if the speed limit is exceeded and can also automatically convict you of more serious driving offenses.

The BBC is currently reporting the disappearance of Claudia Lawrence. Lawrence was working as a chef at a university in York when she disappeared two weeks ago. The BBC report included the following: “It was initially thought Miss Lawrence had disappeared after setting off on the three-mile walk from her home to work the following morning. But she does not appear on any CCTV footage from her normal route.”

On the basis of the CCTV, the police ruled out her having walked to work, which means that they were able to reconstruct a three mile route through the city and were reasonably sure that they had not missed Lawrence on the CCTV footage. That the police would be able to do that and no one bats an eyelash over it for privacy reasons is astonishing to me and I must admit I did a double take when I read the BBC account. Many jurisidictions in the US now employ traffic cameras, mostly at stop lights, but this is several generations beyond that kind of intrusion, which is bad enough. It is 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.

How do the British people like the surveillance state? Well, maybe some of them don’t. I was watching the BBC automobile show Top Gear last week when one of the drivers began to complain about the four ranks of cameras perched menacingly along Putney bridge. He then described how they can be disabled using a strip of plastic wrap strategically placed which causes the camera’s focus mechanism to malfunction. He recommended the technique because the plastic wrap has survivability, i.e. because it is transparent it is unlikely to be noticed by passing police and removed. Some drivers apparently have been disabling the cameras using cans of spray paint.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Government Surveillance 
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  1. Tony J says:

    Your point about the massive expansion of State surveillance in Britain is perfectly valid, and in answer to your question most Britons don’t really seem to care, because they can’t envisage how a) it’s a problem for them, or b) that there’s anything they can do about it, since the only viable electoral option to centre-right New Labour for the past decade has been a vote for the hard-right Conservatives, who aren’t exactly likely to rein in the excesses

    But the example you choose of people sabotaging cameras on Putney bridge is a tad flawed. There’s a lot of opposition to – speed – cameras, not because of the threat to civil liberties, but because there’s a substantial chunk of th country who – spurred on by the Top Gear car-fetishism of the right-wing media think it’s simply outrageous that they’re not allowed to drive over the legal speed limit without risking being – shock, horror – punished for it. They’re all – excellent – drivers, don’t you know.

    It’s pretty pathetic, really. Know what happened in France when they tried out speed cameras? The French, rather than bleating about it, just decided as a nation to squirt expandable putty into the body of every speed camera they drove past.

    The project was quickly discontinued.

  2. rawshark says:

    The comic V for Vendetta is set in a future London of 1997 that’s filled with surveillance cameras. It was written in ’82.
    Of course if you’re not doing anything wrong…….you don’t mind having your privacy invaded.

  3. Peter says:

    It’s truly sad that most of the populaces of both the UK and, my country, the US go along so willingly with such big brother practices. People really do see a protective big brother in their government, even when big brother bullies more than he protects. To treat the populace as suspect and as a threat is an insult to just about everything that we can or have fought for. And it’s tragic/comical that Americans who claim to support small government are most likely to support the police state.

    You Britons could probably supply all your energy needs if you could just harness the energy generated by Eric Blair (Orwell) spinning furiously in his grave…

  4. RK says:

    I lived in the UK for 3 years recently and asked several colleagues and people at customer sites about this surveillance rubbish. They always looked at me as if I was yet another stupid American asking one more dumb question.

    The sheep simply doesn’t care [true in the US as well].

  5. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    To be perfectly frank, as a friend of Claudia Lawrence, right now I wish they had more of the cameras and had had one more trained on the pavement right in front of her door. Then maybe she’d be safe at home now. Would I sacrifice the comfort of my privacy for this? Hell yes.

    I recognise the validity of your argument and the sinister implications of surveillance and certainly have no wish to give up my right to privacy. However, I don’t believe it ranks higher than saving lives. Maybe reflect for a moment on which one you’d prefer if it were one of your loved ones missing.

  6. Angela says:

    To be perfectly frank, as a friend of Claudia Lawrence, right now I wish they had more of the cameras and had had one more trained on the pavement right in front of her door. Then maybe she’d be safe at home now. Would I sacrifice the comfort of my privacy for this? Hell yes.

    That’s your right. What troubles me is your willingness to sacrifice the comfort of my privacy for this.

  7. Peter says:

    And you don’t think that a camera on every street corner SHOULD have been enough to keep that lady safe? I think the large majority of applications for such draconian surveillance technology is to control and fine the populace. It is a great revenue generator and it keeps people uncomfortable in public. However, the real causes of what the UK deems “anti-social” behavior have nothing to do with a LACK of cameras and police, and more to do with the anonymous, cut-throat, competitive, impoverished, and culture-stripping state of society.

    If you want to play a statistics game about safety, then sure! We could turn the entire planet into an absolute totalitarian police state, and so long as the government itself didn’t commit acts of violence/crime (which it surely would), then statistically we’d be safer than ever. But is that really what we want if we consider ourselves free, independent, civil HUMAN beings? Where/when exactly do we draw the line? And do we really want to sacrifice a free and mostly safe life for a 100% safe yet externally controlled/monitored/micro-managed one? The decreased quality/free-choice of the latter life would surely make most people unhappy with it. Things are bad enough as they are without an increase in big brother’s watch.

    Life is never without risk, that is the consequence of simply being ALIVE. The safest societies are the freest, most holistically balanced/organized, and those that provide humble necessities/belonging/community/purpose to all members. And until we can achieve a decent semblance of such a society, we should largely ignore the temptation for police/war gadgetry and systems of mass control.

  8. W. Smith says:

    Thankfully, there seems to be a growing consensus in Britain that the creeping surveillance infrastructure is now being used to criminalise the whole population. Everyone is viewed with suspicion until they can prove their innocence, and because there are so many laws governing not only our public, but also private behaviour, the majority of us have done something that’s against the law, therefore making everyone guilty of something.

    This makes the argument that some people are still spouting, ‘If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’, a complete farce. The choices we have over how to behave are becoming increasingly controlled by the state, and where a behaviour would have previously been considered a misdemeanour and dealt with by other members of society in an informal way, we are now encouraged to leave socially unacceptable behaviour to be dealt with by the law.

    I think the reason we have allowed the police so much power to shape our society is because the visible surveillance seems innocuous enough, for example the CCTV cameras are made to look like lampposts and hidden in the forest of road furniture we have, but the fact that these ‘lampposts’ have huge spikes guarding the cameras from the very people they’re supposed to be ‘protecting’, speaks volumes.

    We don’t like to think of the potential this invasive sinister technology would have were an extremist political party to come to power. I love my country, and I’m not moving abroad to leave it to be run into the ground by these control freaks, but I’m genuinely frightened for the type of world my children will be forced to live in where thoughtcrime is a reality, and where they would fear voicing their opinions even in private. I haven’t yet seen a comprehensive answer to rolling back the extent of state monitoring, but left any longer and it will be too late.

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