Orwell Cometh: A Look Inside the Surveillance Society

Is England a police state? It's hard not to think so given that the nation's public spaces brim with 4.2 million surveillance cameras. Indeed, the United Kingdom seems an extreme case. They use 20 percent of the world's closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras but monitor only one percent of its population.

Journalist Ross Clark, in his newly released The Road to Big Brother: One Man's Struggle Against the Surveillance Society, does his best to describe what is going on across the pond. Central to his work are the questions: "How did we get to this position, where everything we do seems to be watched by the state? Did we ask for it, do we want it? Or has it just crept up on us?" American conservatives now pose the same questions regarding the federocracy, a gargantuan apparatus that burns through individual liberties in the manner a tractor does gasoline. Mr. Clark speaks not only of a phenomenon that afflicts his homeland, but ours as well.

Previously, Mr. Clark authored How to Label a Goat: The Silly Rules and Regulations That Are Strangling Britain and The Great Before: A Satire. In the past, Mr. Clark has written for the Times, the Sunday Telegraph, the Spectator, and the Mail on Sunday.

BC: I'm happy to report that I just completed reading your new book, The Road to Big Brother: One Man's Struggle Against the Surveillance Society. In the text, you refer to England as one big Panopticon. For those unfamiliar with the term, to what are you referring? Also, what relevance does the word have to the modern nanny state?

Ross Clark: The Panopticon was a prison designed by early 19th-century lawyer Jeremy Bentham to give prisoners the illusion that they were being constantly watched. Each cell had a window facing onto a central tower fitted with blinds which allowed the gaoler to see in but not the prisoner to look out -- it would not be designed with one-way glass. Bentham's theory was that it would improve discipline as well as cutting costs: the prisoner could not tell when he was being watched and therefore must behave as if he were being watched all the time. The British government was initially impressed and sought to build a prison to Bentham's design, but then pulled the plug on the project. The principle, however, has been put into practice through CCTV systems: we can't be sure whether anyone is watching us via CCTV cameras, so in theory they should act as a constant deterrent.

BC: The law of unintended consequences applies to every endeavor, but have the 4.2 million cameras surveying England resulted in less crime? You mention the concept of crime displacement; is that something we're now witnessing?

Ross Clark: Impressive claims are often made by police and other authorities about reductions in crime after cameras have been installed. There has also been serious criticism of these claims by criminologists: it is no use celebrating a reduction in crime directly beneath a camera if a few hundred yards away in a spot not covered by cameras crime has increased. Given that it is improbable authorities could ever cover every square inch of public space with CCTV cameras, the problem of crime displacement will always be there.

That aside, there are two questions here, I think: firstly, do CCTV cameras deter people from committing crime and, secondly, do they help solve crime after it has been committed? On the deterrence question there was an interesting study into CCTV cameras conducted by the University of Cardiff back in the late 1990s: when there was still such a thing as a British town without CCTV cameras, a study was conducted by the University of Cardiff into town center brawls, comparing the situation in towns with cameras to that in towns without them. The conclusion was that the CCTV cameras acted as no deterrent whatsoever: drunken men were just as likely to start a fight knowing they were in full view of the cameras. The only difference was that where cameras were present the police arrived more quickly, so reducing the severity of the injuries. In other words the cameras improved the effectiveness of police resources, but there was no Panopticon effect: the presence of cameras did not make people behave.

As for solving crime, sometimes the CCTVs help. But according to the government's own figures four out of five images requested by the police or the courts turn out to be of no use whatsoever, either because the camera was pointing the wrong way or wasn't focused, or because the image was too grainy. And of course, seasoned criminals know how to dress for the cameras: the hoody top, so beloved by British youths, is a kind of evolutionary response to CCTVs.