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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.

BC: You mention the Stasi, East Germany's secret political police, and their 90,000 agents. Obviously, the Stasi's humans were very successful at spying. Given this eventuality, can machines ever replace men in terms of effective surveillance?

Ross Clark: The point I was making was that CCTV cameras and other forms of electronic surveillance are not synonymous with authoritarianism. The most authoritarian societies the world has known exerted their grip not by cameras but via human surveillance: they recruited vast numbers of people to spy on their fellow citizens. Obviously I am not advocating authoritarianism; I am merely arguing that human eyes and ears are highly effective surveillance tools in themselves. If you want to reduce crime, plastering a city with CCTV cameras is not necessarily the best way of achieving it. Far better to create public spaces where people feel comfortable and engender a community spirit where people feel it their duty to take an active part in fighting crime, by witnessing incidents, cooperating with police, and so on. CCTV cameras, I feel, detract from this objective. If a street is full of cameras it is too easy to walk on by, thinking that I don't need to witness or report that group of louts breaking into a shop; that's what the cameras are for.

BC: How much has political correctness debilitated policing in modern Britain?

Ross Clark: Political correctness has certainly been a problem. On one level it has led to police stopping and searching people for no reason other than to fulfill some ethnic quota. On another level senior officers of the Metropolitan Police in London seem to spend much of their time suing each other for alleged racial discrimination.

But a greater problem, I think, is health and safety culture. CCTV cameras have in so many cases been used as an excuse to reduce police presence on the streets. There is a tendency to think that if we put cameras on the streets, we can use them to do the laborious, dangerous bits of policing. Officers can retreat to the safer environment of CCTV control rooms and do their policing by remote control. This is folly.

The presence of real, living policemen has a far greater effect on crime reduction than does the presence of cameras. In Northampton, one of the towns I visited for my studies, the installation of 400 CCTVs had been accompanied by a rise in crime and anti-social behavior. In the run-up to Christmas 2005, on the other hand, the local constabulary experimented by putting police horses on the streets late at night to contain revelers. Crime and disorder fell by a quarter during the time they were deployed.

BC: "Mission creep" is an interesting notion. Is government's natural tendency to control and expand its own power something we're seeing now with surveillance states?

Ross Clark: The prime example of this is Britain's DNA database. This was established in 1995 to hold DNA samples of convicted criminals. But over time the police have added to it everyone they have arrested or questioned. There are now some five million Britons in it, including a pair of girls caught by police for playing hopscotch on the sidewalk.

At some point, no doubt, it will become a tidying-up exercise to add everyone to it -- effectively treating us all as criminal suspects. It is not just overbearing; it is counterproductive. The vast majority of crime is committed by a few repeat offenders, yet having everyone's DNA in the database creates a fog of data which makes it harder to pick out the samples you want. Data in the database is also being used in order to conduct research into a possible genetic basis for criminality. If we are not careful we will be back to eugenics, labeling children as potential criminals from the moment they are born. I don't recall this being part of the mission when the database was launched.

BC: You cite Justice Lord Goddard who, in 1952, ruled that laws established due to the exigencies of war and continued in peacetime turn "law-abiding subjects into lawbreakers, which is a most undesirable state of affairs." Haven't we seen precisely that occur during government's advance on liberty over the last fifty years?

Ross Clark: Yes, we have. One of the effects of surveillance is to create offenses. If you pass a law obliging everyone to carry an ID card -- the subject on which Lord Goddard was talking -- you immediately turn those who refuse to carry a card into criminals. There is something very alienating about the way in which surveillance is used to enforce law. Authorities now set out to trap people rather than guide them. One small example: Passengers used to be allowed to hop onto London buses, then pay the conductor as he came round. Now, they must present a prepayment card which they have bought before they board. If their prepayment card turns out not to have been loaded with enough money for their journey they are stiffly fined. It is a system which catches out the forgetful and confused as much as it does the genuine fare-dodger -- which promotes alienation.

BC: What would George Orwell say about the England of 2009? I'm partially joking here as you answered the question in your appendix.

Ross Clark: I think he would have been astounded that so many of the tools of surveillance which he imagined would have come to fruition in societies which remain -- essentially -- democratic. He might also have been amused at how badly some of the surveillance equipment functions. The National Health Service has spent billions on a computer database which is supposed to make everyone's health records available on computer, but it still doesn't work. Winston Smith would quite likely have been accidentally deleted from Big Brother's database.

BC: England will hold elections in the near future. Is there any chance that should the Conservatives emerge victorious they will cut back the size of the Leviathan? Or, rather, are they every bit as devoted to statism as the Labour Party?

Ross Clark: They have promised to abandon ID cards, but I doubt whether there will be much of a change in attitude towards surveillance generally. The Conservatives were in government between 1979 and 1997 when a lot of surveillance systems were introduced. Labour has just carried on when they left off.

BC: Are people in England content with their nanny state? Socialism has inevitably resulted in misery everywhere it has been practiced, but do the British citizenry believe that their colossal debt is something that need not ever be paid?

Ross Clark: It is very hard to excite the British on issues of liberty. Few have lived in authoritarian countries and cannot imagine what it is like living under a malign regime. CCTV cameras are very popular -- in a few cases it has been the police who have been opposing their installation and the public demanding them. There is, on the other hand, growing disgust at the way in which taxes are being misspent. The British state will simply have to contract over the next few years -- or else it will go bust.