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…

How many people are being arrested for taking pictures in public in Britain?

It seems that what is going on is a battle to control the power of visibility, the power to make images. The British state, and other ‘responsible’ bodies (generally commercial organisations) are attempting to make us increasingly transparent whilst at the same time reducing the ability of ordinary people to render the state transparent…

I’m seeing more and more local and self-reported stories of ordinary people being harassed and arrested in Britain, for taking photographs in public. Today BoingBoing is reporting on this Manchester man who was arrested because the police thought he might be photographing sewer gratings. I reported last year on the case of an online acquaintance who was arrested and humiliated over several days in London. It is increasingly not even police but the growing multitude of ‘plastic police’ – Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs), neighbourhood wardens and private security guards – who are at the forefront of this tendency. But because most of these stories are never taken up by the national – or even local – media, it is difficult to have a good idea of how widespread this has become.

This is even before we have seen the effects of the new Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 which under Section 76, gives power to the police to prevent people from taking pictures. Most of the arrests have come under Section 44 or 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 which allow the police to stop and search photographers and in the latter case, to arrest people for possessing material (generally photographs in this case) likely to be of use in the commission of an act of terrorism.

At the same time of course, there has been a huge expansion of CCTV particularly by the state. It seems that what is going on is a battle to control the power of visibility, the power to make images. The British state, and other ‘responsible’ bodies (generally commercial organisations) are attempting to make us increasingly transparent whilst at the same time reducing the ability of ordinary people to render the state transparent, in other words to hold the state accountable. A situation of rowing asymmetry is developing with regards to the visual image. This renders the whole public rationale for CCTV expansion highly questionable. We already know that CCTV operatives are spending more of their time searching for these kinds of social and public order offenses rather than actual crime.

This tends to support the argument that I have been making that several democratic countries, with Britain and Italy at the forefront, are drifting into a kind of ‘soft fascism’, a creeping totalitarianism that is presented as reasoned and reasonable. It allows supporters to claim that opponents are being ‘extreme’ and underestimating the ‘real danger’, that all of these measure are ‘for our own good’. Yet we have arrived at a point where even untrained, ill-educated street-level minions of the state can now decide whether wee are allowed to take pictures in public. When people like ex-MI5 chief, Stella Rimington are saying that we are in danger of heading towards a police state, even the cynics, and the ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ crowd, should be taking some notice.

We’re All Gonna Die

Is the title of a great bit of semi-undercover photography by Simon Hoegsberg, who took pictures from the same place on a railway bridge in Berlin over the course of 20 days taking pictures of people walking past, and then stitched them all together into one 100 metre-long span, which you can scroll online. Some noticed the photographer, most didn’t and it is a curiously moving piece of observation, perhaps particularly for me because I did see someone die jumping from a railway platform in front of the train I was supposed to be getting last year in Germany.

(thanks to VSL for leading me to this)