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The Road to Big Big Brother: One Man's Struggle against the Surveillance Society

The Road to Big Big Brother: One Man's Struggle Against the Surveillance Society - Ross Clark Well, it wasn’t quite what I expected, but I guess I can’t complain. Ross Clark doesn’t like all the new surveillance cameras in public spaces, but he offers some pretty bland arguments against them. His two strongest cases against turning Britain into an authoritarian panopticon are that it is too expensive, and it doesn’t really work well towards the stated goal of reducing crime. Wait. That’s why you don’t want to live in George Orwell’s 1984? Because it’s too expensive, and it isn't effective enough reducing crime!? We’re talking about a vision of society where privacy has completely vanished, where fear of terrorism and other crimes have grown a security apparatus so extensive that every citizen must submit to a daily sort of virtual strip search merely to go about the innocent activities of normal living. More importantly, we’re talking about a paradigm shift on the part of law enforcement, where the presumption of innocence is shifting towards a presumption of guilt. Where’s the outrage? I don’t need a foaming-at-the-mouth diatribe against the encroaching police state (but I won’t lie to you; I’d enjoy one); I just find it frustrating that instead of fighting these encroachments on their principles, Clark trots out the somewhat submissive complaint that 1984 doesn’t work well as a business model. It doesn’t seem befitting of a book whose subtitle is "One man’s struggle against the surveillance society". What’s Clark’s struggle? To make the police state more cost-effective? Getting past my biases, I’ll concede the author makes some… at least interesting points. Clark makes a minor project of documenting all the public monies spent in Britain on police cameras from about 2002-2009. He examines several smaller municipalities which have each spent around £500,000 to outfit their town centers with state-of-the art surveillance cameras, complete with central control room and loudspeakers, where police monitoring citizens can directly communicate with the public they are viewing- presumably to mitigate incipient crimes ("You there! Drop that gun!"). After nearly a decade, none of the towns Clark investigated could point to a single case where the cameras were shown effective. That is to say, not only were there no anecdotes where the police got to yell "You there! Drop that gun!"; there was no statistical drop in the crime rates in the surveilled towns. Part of the problem is that crime simply moved to areas out of view (alleyways, for example). Predictably, the official response to this was that more cameras were needed. Beyond that, though, the police admitted that they simply didn’t have the manpower to monitor all the images coming in.. especially with their budgets hurting from the initial and maintenance costs of the cameras. The manpower issue also affected the polices’ ability to put men out on the street to actually enforce laws… too many cops were now back in the command center, looking at the monitors. It seems criminals in these towns didn’t take very long to learn that the police might be able to see their activity, but were ill-equipped to do anything about it. Towns still need law officers to issue tickets, apprehend criminals, and investigate any situation where a camera view isn’t quite enough to get the whole story. So maybe cameras aren’t so useful in preventing crime, but what about solving crimes and prosecuting them in court? Sorry. Even by the polices’ own official accounts, the image quality on their cameras is usually too poor to make a positive identification. Some of the newer cameras are augmented with sophisticated face scanning technologies, where a video image of a suspect’s face is compared against a "rogues’ gallery" database of known criminals. Again, the performance of these items fall far below the hype used to sell them. The technology is apparently easily fooled by non-ideal lighting and camera position, and by any facial expression other than a grim forward-looking stare. More concerning still, Clark details several cases where the system has misidentified people. Okay. I’ll admit that's interesting.As he expands his investigation, Clark starts to look at other new surveillance tools. Databases with citizens’ DNA on file, new ways to follow people with their cellphones, GPS car tracking, and all the many ways a person’s computer can be used to track and profile him. Each of these has experienced a similar fate: they have been initially heralded as an additional tool for law enforcement, but in practice they have supplanted old police methods. It used to be that if a crime was suspected, some detectives were put on the case. They investigated and devised a theory about the who/what/where/when of the crime. With probable cause, they could seize certain items as evidence (i.e. phone and bank records) to support charges and prosecution. With the new "tools" available, the old model has devolved into the pattern of suspecting a crime, then collecting the evidence (usually this means seizing the suspect’s computer) and then going on a fishing expedition to work out the who/what/where/when. Unfortunately, since the difficult part… the deductive reasoning that used to be called the actual police work… is so much weaker than it used to be, it is much more frequent that computers (phone, credit card records, etc) are seized from innocent people... Innocent of the originally suspected crime, that is. Unfortunately, police have learned that if they scour a suspect’s computer intently enough, without even knowing what they are looking for, they can often come up with evidence of some sort of crime, to justify the intrusion. So a pattern has now emerged, in which people suspected of dealing drugs have their homes broken into, and their computers seized, and they are cleared of the drug dealing charge, but then convicted of trivial and completely unrelated "crimes"… such as photographic images on one’s computer proving underaged drinking, or illegally downloaded songs, etc. The lesser conviction justifies the intrusion, in the eyes of most law enforcers, but it is really just cover for sloppy police work, and supports a trend towards law enforcement disregarding citizen’s rights to privacy, and a towards police assuming that every citizen "must be guilty of something". Consequently, Clark shows that over the past twenty years, our law enforcement agencies have become progressively less successful at solving major crimes, but dramatically more successful solving trivial crimes. Okay, that's interesting too.The part about databases is a similar discussion. The author shows how law enforcement databases have gone from simple collections of criminal mug shots and fingerprints, to mass DNA databases of the public at large. In England (at least) DNA is often first collected in a medical setting, without innocent persons knowing or consenting to the eventual transmission of this information to the police. Then there are the "behavioral databases"... records of noncriminal events, made open to the police. If you need to take your child to a hospital emergency room in Great Britain, the incident- no matter how innocent and uncontested the circumstances- gets recorded in a special database. If the same family records a second child emergency room visit, it will trigger a review by a protective services agency, and possible investigation. It may entail a police officer being sent to interview the parents and inspect the home. On one hand, "Great… we’ll catch more child abusers!" On the other hand, now completely innocent parents have a strong disincentive to get their child necessary medical attention, because of the suspicion it will invite. In cases where the need for medical attention is clearcut, a caring parent probably won’t be deterred, but in those "gray areas" ("Do you think Johnny needs stitches? Well, I think he looks okay") the official policy could well be hurting more children than it helps. Again, the tracking of innocent people, in the hopes of singling out a criminal like a needle in a haystack, has the downside of treating the average law-abiding citizen like a "criminal who just hasn’t committed a crime yet". This is a problem which has been amplified by new technologies, because it’s getting easier and easier to collect and track more and more information about people, so there is always a temptation to do so. (And a software vendor eager to help you rationalize away any doubts.)Okay, that's interesting too.The "mission creep" part of this book was a bit more philosophical, but in a good way. When new technologies are introduced, it is not always easy to predict how they will be used. Police surveillance cameras mounted out in public seemed like a good way to deter crime, so in 2005 in Northampton, the police department had an idea… there had been a rash of burglaries in the area, so the police actually convinced (!!!) some local families to have monitored cameras installed inside their homes, for the purposes of detecting a burglary in progress. As of the time of publication (2009), the cameras hadn’t met with success… but what if they do? Will police want to start a broader program, encouraging more citizens to install police cameras in their living rooms? If they catch burglars that way, what do you think the insurance companies might do? Perhaps your rates will go up, if you refuse the cameras. Perhaps, one day in the future, you won’t be able to get insurance at any rate, unless you consent to the cameras. And what if one day, while your camera is waiting for burglars to break in, you have a guest drop in, who isn’t aware the police are listening, and starts chatting about the illegal whiskey distillery in his back shed? Will the police just turn a blind eye, because the camera wasn’t installed for that purpose? What if your home life is, er, a bit exotic? (Clark's own comical phrase) Well, you get the idea.Again, this was interesting.So, overall, even though Ross Clark seems to suffer an inexplicable deficiency of outrage on the subject, he actually does bring up some interesting new ideas about our evolving surveillance society. Most of the text deals with specifics of Britain and British law, but the broad principles seem like they ought to apply across most liberal democracies.Good Luck!