In a society of ubiquitous telecoms surveillance, not having a mobile phone is now suspicious

Contemporary social sorting techniques look for abnormality, but the norms are increasingly defined by reference to the methods of sorting themselves. Thus not wanting to be under mass surveillance makes you suspicious and a subject of targeted surveillance; research into, or resistance or opposition to surveillance also makes you a suspect…

There is a really good article by David Mery in The Register, which provides a nice summary of the current situation regarding the mass surveillance of mobile telecommunications in the EU and the UK specifically.

One particularly interesting point he makes is that the combination of the ubiquity of the mobile phone – there are more phones than people across most of Europe now – with the routine nature of mass state surveillance of telecommunications traffic and mobile phone location, means that not carrying a mobile phone is now grounds for suspicions. One item in the ridiculous German anti-terrorism case against the academic, Andrej Holm, was “the fact that he – allegedly intentionally – did not take his mobile phone with him to a meeting is considered as ‘conspiratorial behavior.'” In te similarly ridiculous arrest of a load of back-to-the-land communards at Tarnac in France, their lack of mobile phones was also considered to be suspicious and evidence of ‘clandestinity.’

This is a key indication of living in a ubiquitous surveillance society – when the norms of surveillance practice start to be seen by the state (or indeed people) as a more general societal norm, and nonconformity is grounds for suspicion. The surveillance society is a self-referential, self-reinforcing one. Contemporary social sorting techniques look for abnormality, but the norms are increasingly defined by the methods of sorting themselves. Thus not wanting to be under mass surveillance makes you suspicious and a subject of targeted surveillance; research into, or resistance or opposition to surveillance also makes you a suspect (as the current London Met poster campaign also shows). The normalisation of surveillance potentially makes suspicious anything that we do that makes state surveillance of more difficult. It is no longer a case of a passive ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’, but that not volunteering to be under surveillance makes us ‘abnormal’.

This seriously affects our civil liberties, but it has the potential to affect something more fundamental too – our autonomy, that is the ability to define ourselves as indviduals. Contemporary surveillance societies have started to impose categorisations and indentifications onto people that have nothing to do with how we feel about our identities. These categorisations not only stand for us in specific negotiations with the state (as they always have done in the past), they appear increasingly designed to erase identity (or even the potential for the self-construction of identity) and replace it with an identificatiton, by reinscribing the state categorisation, derived from surveillance, back onto the person and their behaviour.

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…