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.

In the USA, Big Brother is listening…

Well, according to the Baltimore Sun, the Maryland Transit Authority will be listening if it implements a proposal for recording all conversations between passengers and employees on its buses. This is not the first attempt to introduce audio surveillance of the public. In 2006, in the Netherlands, a microphone system attached to existing CCTV cameras was introduced to supposedly prevent fights by detecting distinctive vocal sounds.

Now, there may well be problems with aggressive or abusive passengers in Maryland (although I’ve also encountered enough abusive drivers in my time!) but that does not mean that any kind of action is justified in the name of preventing or discouraging this. This, as in the Netherlands situation, is a problem of incivility (or ‘respect’ to use Tony Blair’s favourite policy word) but civility develops between people and cannot be imposed by authority or surveillance. What you get by going down this road, if indeed the strategy ‘works’ at all is simply a society of resentful, distrustful, quietude where civility is simply a set of superficial Pavlovian responses not genuinely felt values that people work to create and would want to defend. Problems of incivility are hardly going to he solved by trying to create an even more managed, automated and, fundamentally, desocialised and uncivil society. As the UK’s leading CCTV researcher, Clive Norris, remarked about the UK’s ‘shouting cameras’, introduced as part of the Blair’s ‘Respect Zones’, it is hard to imagine anything much more disrespectful of the public.

What’s particularly interesting in this story too is the way in which one form of surveillance can be used to justify another, producing an internal and self-replicating logic. The thinking is that as buses already have video cameras, then this is just the same thing, right? Stick a notice up saying you’re being recorded and all legal bases are covered. Well, no, I don’t think so. Let’s explore this further. I frequently record conversations that I have. Shocked? Actually, it’s part of my job as a researcher. I interview people and I record the interviews, but I do so with the full consent of the person being interviewed and if they do not want to be recorded, I don’t record them. However, there appears to be no room for consent around mass surveillance at all. It’s becoming clear that the (lack of) regulation of CCTV has set a dangerous precedent here, with consent being regarded as ‘impractical.’ It is really not enough in any accountable system of democracy to assume that the state can assume consent for surveillance measure on the grounds that to seek specific consent would be too hard. And in any case, the ‘acceptance’ of CCTV – even if one believes that the public does indeed ‘accept’ it rather than simply feel a sense of profound disempowerment with regard to video surveillance – does not mean that ‘anything goes’ as far as surveillance is concerned. An already dubious implied consent to one form of monitoring is not the same as consent to all monitoring. And of course, even if you did have some collective majoritarian consent, what does that imply for those in the minority? We already know that surveillance is targeted against minorities, so how can even a standard democratic procedure protect people here? Of course, this is what constitutional protections are for, and in particular in this case, the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution but the MTA appears to think that the precedent of CCTV means that this does not apply. Round and round we go.

This, in the end, is all about organisational risk management and simply treats the public as sources of risk and as potential offenders, not people with rights, and indeed people who either are generally or, given the respect and space they deserve, would be, good. But risk-thinking seems to override even those things we are used to seeing as foundational of our societies.