Spying on Your Neighbours

One of the characteristics one would expect in a ‘surveillance society’ is that surveillance would become seen as a more ‘normal’ reaction to problems at all levels of society. So we start to see instructive stories about surveillance in all kinds of unexpected places. The ‘Home and Garden’ section of the Seattle Times newspaper carries a very interesting report this week on the use of relatively low-cost surveillance systems (some involving digital movement detection) used by ordinary middle-class homeowners to monitor their property and more specifically to catch their neighbours doing very unneighbourly things, such as tossing dog faeces into their gardens or trying to peek in through their windows.

In most of these cases, it seems the surveillance is primarily about defending property and based around specific observed anti-social behaviours. So, is this just a question of the legitimate defence of property rights and privacy (the legal view) or is this any kind of a social problem? I think it is certainly more complicated than just being a question of individuals empowering themselves with technology to do the right thing.

There is a big unvoiced problem behind all of this which is the decline of civility, neighbourliness and trust. It seems that most of the problems are interpersonal ones and would be ideally best resolved not through the secret gathering of information to inform a police investigation, public prosecution or private legal action, but through communication with the neighbours concerned. Richard Sennett, Jane Jacobs and many others have observed that we live increasingly in a ‘society of strangers’. The turn to surveillance not as a last resort but as a ‘natural’ first option, would seem to me not only a recognition of this, but a contribution to the wider problem. We don’t trust our neighbours so we watch them. But in watching them we diminish any remaining trust we had in them, and certainly they lose any trust they had in us.

This adds up. It is social not just interpersonal. It means people accept the diminution of general rights of privacy in public spaces and justifies the intrusion of all kinds of agencies into the lives of individuals and groups. This is only encouraged by government campaigns to watch out for suspicious activity, corporate pleas to all of us to be permanently on guard against ‘identity thieves’, ‘hackers’ and of course, celebrity magazines and websites that encourage a voyeuristic interest in the intimate lives of others.

Manchester Airport trials virtual strip-search system

Rapiscan image (BBC)
Rapiscan image (BBC)

You would think after 4 years of trials at Heathrow, that British airports would now be able to work out whether or not they could and more importantly, should, use the various varieties of body scanners that are now available. However Manchester Airport is holding another trial starting from now at its Terminal 2. At least it will give a chance for the public to say what they think. The scans are remote – i.e.: the officer observing the images is not on the airport floor, which prevents the kind of scenario we mentioned in our Report on the Surveillance Society of lewd remarks directed at passengers. Personally, I am rather less concerned about this rather abstract view of my body being seen briefly as I pass through an airport than I am about my financial details and personal life being traded between private companies, or about being under constant video surveillance in ordinary public space in the city. However, the images, although ghostly, are detailed enough that genitals, deformities, medical implants and so on can be seen, and if this story is to be believed it would seem that there is no provision for women’s images to be seen by a women alone and men’s only by a man. This will make it entirely unacceptable to some people, in particular members of certain religious groups. But the scans are – at least, for now – voluntary, in that passengers can refuse and have a traditional pat-down search instead.

However, this technology won’t be staying in the airports for long. I reported back in July on stories that terahertz wave scanning could soon be made to fit into portable cameras. That raises a whole different set of social, political and ethical questions…

(Thanks to Simon Reilly for sending me the link)

Racial profiling hits a new low

Just when you think that state surveillance in supposedly free countries could not sink any lower, it has been revealed that UK Border Agency is finding a pilot project into using DNA and isotope analysis to determine the origin of asylum-seekers. This is not a joke or a scare-story. It is a real project. Science Insider has the details here. The Agency is refusing to say who is doing this research for them, nor has it provided any references to studies that show that what they are proposing will work. It appears that most scientists working in the area think it is based on entirely faulty premises and there is no reason to believe it will work. That’s only a minor objection compared to the political and ethical ones of course. As the story in Science Insider points out the Border Agency seem to be making a fundamental (and totally racist) error in assuming that ethnicity and nationality are synonymous. And this research would probably not got past any university ethics committee, which makes one wonder what kind of screening or ethical procedures the Border Agency used, and indeed who would carry out such an obviously unsound piece of research. It’s another example of increasingly unaccountable arms-length agencies (which have proliferated in recent years) using the ‘technical’ as an excuse to bypass what should be a matter of high-level policy, and indeed something that so obviously harks back to the bad days of Europe’s racist and genocidal past that it beggars belief that any sane official would have let this get further than a suggestion in a meeting.

(thanks to Andy Gates for pointing me to the story)