Incompetence and Surveillance

There is an opinion piece in The Daily Telegraph (UK) today by Alasdair Palmer, which argues that it is the incompetence and human fallibility of the UK government rather than any lack of desire which prevents an Orwellian surveillance state from emerging in the UK. It is hardly new but it’s an attractive argument, one which I have used before and which we used to a certain extent in our Report on the Surveillance Society, and one which draws on the deep well of cynicism about government which has long characterised British politics.

However there are a number of problems with the argument. The first is whether it is really true. A totalitarian society does not have to be competent in the sense of having correct information, in fact one of the central messages of Nineteen Eight-Four is that ‘truth’ is a product of state control in such societies. This was obvious in the case of Stalin’s purges. The accusations made against individuals did not rely on the accuracy of the accusation but on the very fact of accusation, something brought out very strongly in Orlando Figges’ recent book, The Whisperers. In the UK in recent years we have seen some elements of this. It doesn’t matter for example, whether someone really is a terrorist, the word ‘terrorist’ is just redefined in law and practice to encompass that person. New terms are invented to describe quasi-crimes (like anti-social behaviour) which come to have the force of ‘crime’ and become the focus of state surveillance activity. And I have shown how the recent arguments over photography in public places show a genuine totalitarianism in the attempt to define the limits of the collection and interpretation of visual images. It doesn’t matter how competent the state is at carrying out its desires here. The very fact that it defines what is acceptability in this way can create a new ‘normality’ and a ‘chilling effect’ on protest and resistance – which makes such activity even more essential.

The second problem is the idea that incompetence protects us. It didn’t in Soviet Russia and it doesn’t today. The government’s uselessness in handling data harms people. The loss and leakage of private personal information can lead to real effects on people’s lives: information theft, fraud and so on. The loss of trust in those who control information also has knock-on effects on those organisations that genuinely rely on personal information to provide essential services and care: education, health services, social work etc. A loss of trust caused by failed repression leads to a generalised loss of trust in government and in other people: it damages social trust. It is perhaps because British people have such a low level of social trust anyway that we expect things to fail.

The third problem relies on the first two and is the idea that state incompetence is enough to protect us. Of course it isn’t. Cynicism is no basis for thinking of, and creating, a better society. Do we want to live in a society where our only protection is the fact that state is structurally or contingently unable to create a totalitarian situation even though it continues to try? I certainly don’t. The emergence of surveillance societies, competent or otherwise, requires the imagination of alternatives – including greater democracy, accountability, transparency, and regulation and control of both state and corporate organisations in our favour – and political action to demand and create those alternatives.

A faith in failure is simply a form of nihilism.

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.