Wednesday, March 11, 2009

“Anti-social” behaviour; is it really a threat?

I entered the outer lobby, inserted my entry key into the electronic door lock and watched the door swing open automatically. I glanced up at the camera which monitored my entry to the lobby. The electronic key would record my arrival in a computerized log indicating the exact time I entered the building. The surveillance camera would keep the video recording of my entrance for three days.

As I made my way through the inner lobby to the elevators, another security camera tracked my movement through the building.

In all, there are 16 such cameras in the co-op apartment building in which I live, and people were clamoring for more. Everyone, it seems, wants to be protected from some threat or another, whether real or imagined. Few want to acknowledge the substantial threat to personal freedom posed by the growing use of CCTV (Closed Circuit Television) to scrutinize public behaviour.

In December, I wrote an article on the growing trend in Britain to monitor public behaviour via the camera lens of CCTV. Britain, it has been claimed, has over four million cameras across the nation. That number may, or may not, be accurate. But, more important than the numbers is the way in which CCTV is being used, or, some might say, abused.

Their deployment to protect stores, schools, apartment buildings and public buildings has been accepted for many years. Security cameras have become common in the workplace, and they’re even being used at intersections to monitor and record traffic violations.

But, in Britain, they’re now being used on public streets to guard against “anti-social” behaviour. Of course, anti-social behaviour has yet to be defined. And, eventually, it could come to mean anything which the state wants it to mean; littering, smoking in the streets, or failing to wash the dishes. Uh-huh.

Apparently, some British “bobbies” don’t accept that old adage that “cleanliness is next to Godliness”. A CCTV camera is being installed in a Brighton police station kitchen to catch officers who don’t wash up. Chief Superintendent Graham Bartlett, in defending the move, said the camera would deter the "small minority" of his officers committing anti-social behaviour. The decision was a last resort after emails and posters prompting officers to clean up were ignored.

Well, I guess there are some who might define failing to wash the dishes as “anti-social”.

And, in Wales, the parents of a Welsh teenager protested her school's decision to install CCTV cameras in the toilets by pulling her out of school. A spokesperson for the school claimed the cameras would target pupils involved in "horseplay" who misused paper towels and liquid soap. Huh. Not to monitor bullying or violence, but to target the anti-social behaviour of kids misusing paper towels.

In Britain, the use of CCTV is intruding on the average person’s right to privacy to an extent never before seen. For example, Nick Gibson, a new pub owner in Islington, London, had to apply for a liquor license, which required the approval of a number of organizations, including the police.

In a letter to the Guardian (newspaper) Gibson wrote: "I was stunned to find that the police were prepared to approve – ie not fight – our license on condition that we installed CCTV capturing the head and shoulders of everyone coming into the pub, to be made available to them on request."

When contacted by journalist Henry Porter, the MPS (Metropolitan Police Service) responded: “The MPS overall does not have a policy of insisting CCTV is installed within licensed premises before supporting licence applications. However, individual boroughs may impose blanket rules in support of their objectives to prevent crime and disorder and to assist the investigation of offences when they do occur.”

CCTV can play an important role in uncovering serious crime, act as a deterrent in many situations and thereby help reduce criminal activity. However, use of CCTV must be reasonable and in proportion to any alleged threat.

Do we really want CCTV used to monitor, and control, “anti-social” behaviour like littering, horseplay in school bathrooms or failing to do the bloody dishes? Fewer and fewer spaces are unobserved, in Britain, or right here at home.

Still, the profusion of CCTV tends to go unnoticed by many, if not most, Canadians.

And, it’s hard to watch the growing proliferation of cameras without visualizing the totalitarian world of mass surveillance envisioned by George Orwell in his novel, 1984.

Think about it.


Mrs. Pelican said...

Indeed, what price safety? Livestock in the pen is safe, and that's what we have become. Big Brother will look after us all right, as long as it is profitable, and to that end the government wants to know everything we do and attempts to convince us that we couldn't function without its intrusion. If people can be made afraid of each other, it's easier to fleece them because it's all FOR OUR OWN GOOD! Let's spend billions to stop those evil smokers from killing us! Let's spend even more to avert the catastrophe of global warming that came to the holy prophet Al Gore in a dream on a mountain top while he was counting his future carbon credits and inventing the internet. Be afraid! Spend money! George Orwell was a true prophet in our time - since the government likes making things mandatory, how about making everyone read 1984 and Animal Farm. You can do it for free on the internet, the last bastion of free thought that isn't controlled by the media. Yet.

Ben said...

There are so many careless people who use public toilets and leave behind stains in the bowl and toilet paper on the ground. CCTV could easily be used to prevent such crimes by tracking the perpetrators while the cross the town and visit pubs.