Without anyone really noticing it we are becoming a police state. We’re not quite there yet – it’s a long way down to the real depths of secret police, social control, monitored movements – but we’re blindly sleepwalking that path.
George Orwell’s 1984 portrays a country plunged into totalitarianism. The state is locked in an endless war that, although somehow affecting no one directly, functions as a perfect mechanism for inducing fear and justifying the destruction of basic liberties.
Crucially there is mass surveillance. This is the key: an essential element for a true police state is that everyone should be monitored, at all times. Or they must at least believe this is happening. In 1984 everyone is watched, intrusively. Privacy has all but evaporated, the word itself ceasing to have meaning. Everywhere, fear.
Without getting hysterical, without too much hyperbole, there are clear parallels to modern day Britain.
Since September 11 we have been at war with an enemy – “terror” – that by many of our actions we are empowering. The stage is now set for a generations long conflict that can never be, in any real sense, won. In order to fight this war, basic liberties are eroded: long imprisonment without trial, without charge becomes legal. Evidence gained from torture is suddenly admissible in a court of law. Foreign intelligence services carry out extraordinary renditions through British airspace and soil, with the connivance of the government.
And, there is mass surveillance.
CCTV camera and tracking technologies have proliferated. Not so many years ago such cameras – let’s call them spy cameras; that is after all what they are doing – were limited to spaces like garage forecourts. They were ineffective things, recoding largely useless, indistinct time-lapse photos onto VHS tapes. Endless hours of drivers filling-up their cars and walking in to pay. Perhaps the occasional robbery, caught on film, to show on ‘CrimeWatch’ because the police cannot catch the suspect.
Cut to the present day: cameras are, almost literally, everywhere. They are in shops, they’re in bars and clubs, they are high on gantries over the roads, at traffic lights they are watching the high street. They are watching and recording you as you go about the most banal tasks.
The technology is still in relative infancy but has already developed far beyond those scratchy VHS tapes. Face recognition software and high-resolution optics mean your movements can be traced, your facial expressions logged: Your speed and trajectories measured: Your number plate inscribed onto a computer database. You went shopping this afternoon, parked in the Main Street carpark, brought some underwear on a credit card and then went home? Yes ma’am, we know all that. It’s all there, on our hard drive. You met a woman who is not your wife for the fifth time in two weeks, she always wearing a long black skirt, you a gray suit? We know that sir, it was picked up by our cameras and noted by the computer engineer when he ran some tests on a face recognition software.
This monitoring started out as a deterrent against crime and, as such, how could any of us object? Don’t you want to be safe?
Local councils across the country approved more and more projects that promised to smash yob culture. They secured some central government funds, raised cash from local businesses. Sinister words like surveillance, like police state were never mentioned, potential human rights implications pushed aside: The cameras would make us safer by allowing the police to catch criminals, to safeguard the elderly. Don’t you want the elderly to be safe?
And then we are at war with terror and we’re more afraid than ever. It’s not that a teenager is going to snatch your purse outside the bank; that’s a quaint fear from happier times. Now it’s suicide bombers on the bus.
More cameras, better monitoring will help save us. How can we object?
The technology was put in place, the network established and it does have benefits. It can, perhaps, add to our security. It can help police build a case against homicidal fanatics. Perhaps it will even help reduce a crime rate that has, thus far, shown no signs of actually being reduced.
Yet there is a price to pay. We have, unwittingly, put in place the building blocks of a police state; the ability to know where citizens are and, with some high degree of accuracy, what they are doing. When privacy ceases to exist, so in a real sense does freedom. To stop the criminals we are now all monitored as if we are potential criminals. The bag-snatcher is in the database of images as he runs from his victim.. So are you, as you carry the weekly shop to your car.
In the late 18th Century a British philosopher designed the perfect prison. The man was Jeremy Bentham, the prison known as a Panopticon. It was a study in architecture, a building to be constructed in such a way that an observer could watch prisoners without them knowing if they were, at any moment, actually being watched. Perhaps the observer is writing down their every action. Or perhaps the observer is asleep.
The prisoner would never know and so, the prisoner would have to assume they were being watched at all times. Bentham envisioned it as a way of creating an omniescent observer: a God in command of all the prisoners, a permanent presence. Big Brother.
In his words, the Panoptican would be: “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”
The emaciated prisoner would internalise this gaze, and learn to behave in the way he was expected to behave by the observing power. He would become his own prison guard, his own re-educator. His own Big Brother.
Bentham was a liberal, a reformer. He designed the prison for peoples own good.It was not driven by impure motives but a desire to save the dregs of society. But his project was to be confined in space: it was a physical building outside of which the gaze of the observer failed. It had clear limits.
In modern, CCTV Britain, a Panoptican is being created and it has fewer boundaries. It has been established in our public spaces. In certain towns, certain cities it is more complete than you perhaps imagine. The observer could be watching you almost everywhere. We are becoming a perfect prison.
It is just about possible to argue that none of this matters, if we trust absolutely that the authorities controlling it all never, ever abuse their incredible powers. If the government, security apparatus and judiciary stick absolutely to the rule of law, if they uphold the rights of the individual with just zeal. If they ensure there are no illiberal erosions to these basic, sacred rights.
And that’s the problem. Authorities rarely, if ever behave that way for long. They certainly do not behave that way automatically but by continued debate, argument, contest.
Especially in times of war, the instinct of authority is to retreat, to shut down and to restrict. This is already happening: traditional laws are suspended – on the grounds of a vague, nefarious threat to the nation – and along with them are suspended our collective moral decency. Our preciously, democratically elected government starts to behave more and more like a Stalinist dictatorship. They all have national emergencies too; that’s why the reformers disappear, that’s why the military tribunals meet in private to hand out sentences that cannot be appealed.
We take another step down that ladder, another step into the darkness.
With the CCTV and surveillance technology now already out and on the streets, the mechanism is there for the state to take further control of our lives. It may start with monitoring terrorist suspects but where does it end? Can we trust our leaders, our parliaments – those that have failed us so dramatically over simple, vital matters of war and peace – to ensure this all goes so far but no further? Will we so easily abdicate our best interests to them?
We are not a police state yet. The databases tracking your movements are not linked together, they are not complete. The face recognition software is experimental, not universal. The national ID card scheme that will concrete in another layer of monitoring has yet to be rolled out. We are, however, treading the path and we are further down it today than we were yesterday. Will we keep on walking?
Please feel free to comment me or email…
(Thank you to Laura from the BBC for doing my intro voiceover.)