Does anyone else see the irony in the head of the world’s largest surveillance state meeting his destruction in front of an open mic?
Let’s face it, for all the commentary about how Gordon Brown’s harsh comments about a 65 year-old housewife revealed the inner man, what he was mostly guilty of was venting. Struggling through a difficult campaign, going through the motions of public appearances that he didn’t think were going well, Gordon Brown vented. He did what people do after dinners with prickly in-laws and long, droning meetings with the boss—he let off steam.
Now venting, like farting, belching, scratching your butt, and wishing someone were dead, are unpleasant and unattractive human activities that most people perform at least periodically, even though they seldom reflect advantageously on the performer. But usually they are performed before a privileged audience in a place that is private, a status that Brown, sitting inside his car in the company of a handful of loyal aides, thought he enjoyed. But Brown had forgotten that he was wearing an open microphone put there by the TV news people filming his campaign stop, and his comments were shared with the world. What distinguished this incident from a garden variety event like Christian Bale going ballistic on a soundstage is that Brown is not merely a world leader, he’s the leader of the country that is the foremost surveillance state in the world. More than anyone, he should have expected someone to be watching.
There are 4.2 million closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in the UK, one for every fourteen people, perhaps a million in London alone. The cameras are operated by the police and by governmental authorities like the London Underground, by private security firms and local governments, by schools and hospitals and parking lots and chip shops and pubs. In some parts of London, like Westminister, where Parliament and the government buildings are collected, they are literally everywhere, gray boxy sentinels as expressionless as the guards in front of Buckingham Palace. But there are plenty in residential neighborhoods as well. Within 200 yards of a particular vantage point on quiet Canonbury Square in gentrified Islington, one can find 32 cameras running 24 hours a day, and the only thing that makes that particular vantage point unusual was that in 1944, it was the place where George Orwell was living when he began writing 1984.
And thanks to Brown’s Labor government, more cameras are on their way, only they will be more capable. Testing has begun on cameras that will incorporate software that will evaluate your face and eavesdrop on your conversations and tell you to pick up the empty coffee cup you’ve just tossed. If we think public officials are too cocooned now, imagine what they’ll be like when they risk becoming global laughingstocks every time they fail to dispose of a candy wrapper in a proper bin. Yet what’s astonishing is how ineffective CCTV is in fighting crime. A report by London’s Metropolitan Police that was released last August stated that “for every 1,000 cameras in London, less than one crime is solved per year,’’ putting the cost of that particular act of justice at a not very efficient 20,000 pounds. Perhaps one reason is that is that the cameras have been set up on an ad hoc basis dating back to the Thatcher regime, and are not linked. This means that although a Londoner might be caught by a video camera as often as 300 times a day, the fact that those cameras are not connected to one another means that the spectacular feats of surveillance people see television cops perform with ease are simply impossible. Retroactively the police might be able to follow a criminal every step of the way from his home to the scene of the crime, but it’s not as though cops can follow a suspect through central London. Last year an amused security official of the London Underground told me about the time the TV series “Spooks’’ filmed in the Whitehall station. “The character went into our security booth and connected our camera system to MI-5. We’re not connected to MI-5.’’
Instead, the cameras catch people in the act of performing the kind of infraction that Gordon Brown committed—things that are embarrassing, things that should be ignored that instead cause tons of explanation, things that everybody does. Everyone in London seems to have heard a story like the one about the university security sweep that was aimed against car thieves but instead caught two faculty members snogging in the back seat of a sedan. That was an accidental discovery, but as it turns out, local governments, armed with souped-up surveillance capabilities invested in them with new anti-terror laws, have been targeting people suspected of littering, fishing illegally, dumping, and applying to a school outside their area of eligibility. Seeking al-qaeda, we found cow-tippers. Last January, documents were revealed that suggested that the South Coast partnership, a cooperative venture between the Kent Police and the Home Office, was planning to use unmanned spy drones of the type employed in Afghanistan, in policing the population. Hey, it’s not a black helicopter, but it’s close.
And CCTV is just the beginning; British civil libertarians have been fighting other recent Labor Party initiatives include the institution of a biometric national ID card, the creation of a national DNA database, fitting all cars with tracking devices, and instituting systems for tracking all e-mails, phone calls and internet use. The glib line often cited to justify these measures is “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.’’ But everybody’s got something to hide. If you don’t believe me, ask Gordon Brown.