Watch this video from The Guardian on Camden, NJ. It’s ostensibly about police surveillance, and I was expecting to be outraged (once again…) at the use of over-the-top high technology – visual and audio surveillance – to deal with everyday crime.
But instead, what struck me was not so much the ostensible subject but the backdrop: the place itself. The areas patrolled by the officers in this film look almost post-apocalyptic. I’ve seen favelas in Rio de Janeiro that are in better shape, and many certainly seem to have more hope than this. Poverty and inequality in the USA, grounded in a history and present of racial and class exploitation, have become extreme. There’s no other way to put it.
And yet, outside of these places, which are everywhere across the USA, and ironically given the investment in technologies of visibility, the reality is invisible. The use of surveillance here is just a recognition of the lack of anything that amounts to a conception of a decent and fair society in practise, while people are still blinded by the noble goals of the USA as expressed in its constitution. This constitution means little to millions of Americans forced to live in these conditions, while being treated all the time as not even ‘potential criminals’ but simply ‘future criminals’, who will commit a crime at some point, and are destined for nothing more than to be churned through a carceral system that is in itself now a profitable and perhaps even essential component of American capitalism. However, this seems to have escaped the notice and concern of those who actually vote in elections and make decisions, whether they class themselves as liberals or conservatives, most of whom are so far removed from these conditions, physically and emotionally that they could not possibly understand.
This makes it even more bitterly ironic that The Guardian choses to title this report as ‘Minority Report meets The Wire‘, as if the only way to understand this is through fiction – that, somehow, it can’t be real. Yet here it is.
Just when you thought that having just about your every move recorded in the UK was bad enough, Oxford City Council, which runs the city I once called home, has decided that all taxi cabs in the city will record both sound and vision, and these records will be kept for up to 28 days, just in case.
People often ask me ‘where do you draw the line?’. Well, you absolutely draw the line at recording private conversations without a specific justification. Generalized audio surveillance is not just a step over the line, it leaps over the line, lands far beyond it and keeps running.
This is just wrong. No qualification.
It seems that despite having got rid of one government with authoritarian surveillance tendencies, the same impulses are alive and well in local government in Britain. Perhaps the councillors who voted for this would first like to have audio surveillance in their offices, cars and houses, you know: just in case…
Audio surveillance, especially in public places, seems to be one of those lines that we do not want to be crossed. Yet, it seems it will not be long before it gets crossed anyway.
New Scientist this week had an interesting snippet of news about the development of something called ‘AudioScope’ by Morgan Kjølerbakken and Vibeke Jahr, who were at the University of Oslo, but have now set up in business to sell this system, mainly it seems to sports stadia and conference facilities. The technology itself relies on a combination of cameras and microphones in an array, both of which can effectively zoom in on sounds, and “with 300 microphones can make a single conversation audible even in a stadium full of sports fans”.
I just wonder it is before we see an ‘experimental’ version of this installed in some public square, and which will be the lucky city… place your bets now!
Hot on the heals of my earlier post on the subject, I have just received the news that following the publication of the report in The Baltimore Sun, the Maryland Transit Authority have pulled the proposal to use audio surveillance on their buses.
However, an interesting thing to note in this supplementary report by transport correspondent, Michael Dresser, on the paper’s blog, is that the proposal apparently came about because CCTV cameras these days come with sound-recording built in, and that other transit authorities in Cleveland, Denver and Chicago use it. The MTA administrator responsible for seeking the legal opinion on audio surveillance is quoted as saying “It’s something that’s becoming the standard of the industry.”
So, if I am reading this right here, important policy decisions that have major implications for privacy are being treated simply as technical issues because the technologies that are being purchased have the capabilities. It’s only in this case because the MTA sought a legal opinion that we know at all, let alone that anyone objected. So how many other transit, police or urban authorities or commercial venues in how many places are now regularly using the audio capabilities of cameras without ever having considered that this might be a problem? And what other built-in technical capabilities will simply be used in future simply because they are available? What about the Terahertz Wave scanning that I covered earlier on?