Metropolitan Police Encouraging Stupidity and Suspicion

Rather than being a legitmate political response to an illiberal, repressive, undemocratic and unaccountable growth in surveillance, ‘interest’ in CCTV is now regarded as suspicious in itself…

Boing Boing has news of the latest London Metropolitan Police campaign which is supposedly encouraging people to report their suspicions on terrorist activity, but is in fact just another step on the illiberal, socially divisive and stupid road towards a McCarthyite Britain where British people are expected to spy on each other in the name of security.

Why not check your neighbours' waste bins?
Why not check your neighbours' waste bins?

Apart from encouraging people to rifle through their neighbours garbage, the most disturbing thing about this new campaign is the way in which it implies that any interest in CCTV cameras is a potentionally terrorist activity.

See that camera? No, you don't. It's not there.
See that camera? No, you don't. It's not there.

From the late 1980s onwards, the British state in its usual bumbling, piecemeal and disorganised way, gradually created an increasingly comprehensive monitoring program of British city centres. There was never any strong evidence for the need for this technology, it was never approved by parliament, there was never a single CCTV Act that enabled it.

Now, just as it has become pretty clear that CCTV has very little effect on crime rates (its original justification, let us not forget), the state has started to close down criticism and even interest in or discussion of these surveillance measures. Effectively, we are being officially instructed to ignore the cameras and pretend we don’t see them. Rather than being a legitimate political response to an illiberal, repressive, undemocratic and unaccountable growth in surveillance, ‘interest’ in CCTV is now regarded as suspicious in itself.

At the same time, the British state is increasingly regulating the means of production of visual images by ordinary citizens. The state (and many private companies) can watch us while we have to pretend we don’ t notice, but for ordinary people to take picture or make video in public places, and in particular making images of state buildings or employees like the police (you know, the people who supposedly work for us), is being gradually and by stealth turned into a criminal act. In the past, I have been very careful not to shout about all acts of state surveillance being totalitarian (because very few of them actually are), but there is no other word for these trends. The police are attempting to make themselves the arbiters of how we see society and public places; they are telling us what can and cannot be legitimately the subject of interest and of visual representation.

They are also spending more time now ‘securing secturity’ – protecting the architecture of surveillance that has been built. You can see the private sector recognising this. At equipment fairs I have been to over the last few years, one of the big developments in camera technology has been methods of armouring and protecting the cameras themselves. There seems to be an effort, deliberate or unconscious, to forget the supposed original purpose of such surveillance in protecting us, and instead to concentrate on protecting the surveillance equipment.

This is particularly problematic for researchers like me. We’ll see what happens when I am back in London in May and June when I will be taking a lot of pictures of CCTV as part of my project, which is of course, ironically, sponsored by an official British state research council…

Author: David

I'm David Murakami Wood. I live on Wolfe Island, in Ontario, and am Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies and an Associate Professor at Queen's University, Kingston.

8 thoughts on “Metropolitan Police Encouraging Stupidity and Suspicion”

  1. Hi David, hello all,

    I really enjoyed reading your article. It struck me because I was planning on starting a photography “project” or photo series on the increasing numbers of security cameras in my home city, Lyon (France). I’m definitely going to pusrue this idea because as you said to it is a a” legitimate political response to an illiberal, repressive, undemocratic and unaccountable growth in surveillance” All these cameras make me very uncomfortable and I hope that people will understand and suport my point of view.

    stay tuned on my flickr :

    Keep it up

  2. Thanks people, some interesting links – and I hope the project goes well, Kwen10.

    As we know, Christopher, mega-events are often the Trojan horse for repressive policing methods… I’m writing something with Kiyoshi Abe on the way this happened progressively in Japan through the soccer World Cup, the Expo, and the G8 meeting in Hokkaido… although the Japanese government has never gone so far as to suggest photographing cameras is suspicious in general so far as I know (probably because there still aren’t that many state surveillance cameras). See you at the ‘Surveillance Games’?

  3. I keep meaning to pick up (and then read) some of the literature on mega-events in more depth, but haven’t found the time yet. Hopefully in the summer…anything that you would recommend putting high on the list?

    I’m certainly expecting to attend the ‘Games workshop, and look forward to seeing you there.

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