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THE TONY CROSS COLUMN

Article No. 121

Sleepwalking into captivity

(Please go to tonycrosscolumn.org.uk for archived matrerial)

 

 

When I was a young man I read George Orwell’s novel entitled 1984. It portrayed what for me, at that time, seemed a terrible world. A world where the ordinary citizen no longer enjoyed the freedom that I was enjoying. A freedom to go where I wanted without anyone ever being able to watch me or to even trace me. I was my own free agent and for me this was the essence of freedom.

Like most young men I had little or no real idea that that freedom was something that had been fought for, and that it had evolved over many centuries. I was vaguely aware that our English Parliament was at the heart of the freedom I enjoyed, but I knew very little of the history of the struggle for the freedom that was ours.

Over the decades since that time those freedoms have become more and more constricted. The reasons for this narrowing down of our freedoms has a very realistic and laudable reason. It is simply because there are so many lawless people out there that we need these safeguards in order to prevent them from robbing us and blowing us up.

In fact the reason given why the CCTV cameras are so necessary in Britain today is quite simple - the level of lawlessness is such that the CCTV cameras have become an essential tool in Police detection work. We feel safer because we know that thieves, muggers, rapists, murderers, bombers and kidnappers are having their movements recorded - and maybe are actually being watched live by the Police.

When the nail bomber blew up his three bombs, finishing with the one in a gay pub in Soho, he was tracked down via the CCTV. Thank goodness we say. Without that safeguard he might still be blowing people up. How otherwise do you find a lone bomber who sets off his bombs haphazardly?

And remember the 7/7 bombs? We all watched, fascinated yet repelled, by those CCTV pictures of the four young men entering the ticket office at Luton Train Station with their knapsacks on their backs with the bombs inside. They looked so ordinary! Thank goodness, we say, that our Police have this weapon to defeat such people.

Small point here - the bombers were not defeated - they were identified only long after they had set off their bombs. They died by an act of suicide as they set off their bombs. CCTV does not identify would be bombers - not yet anyway.

In George Orwell’s novel 1984 we are shown the way the State observes the every move of everyone - even in the countryside. There is no escape. Big Brother is watching you. I have spent all my life free of that terrible surveillance - but I know that should I visit London nowadays, my every move will be photographed and I will appear on hundreds of CCTV cameras in the course of just one day.

I am sorry for the younger generation. They have never known what it is to really be free from surveillance. Of course we are not subject to 24/7 surveillance - not yet. Nor is it surveillance that identifies who you are as you walk along the street. Again - not yet. We certainly have cameras that can now read car number plates real time. The technology marches on and very soon there will be cameras everywhere that are capable of face recognition. Furthermore it is anticipated that soon the cameras will be so small and inconspicuous that we shall never even see them. The end of the road is that we shall have complete surveillance of all of us wherever we move and whenever we venture out of our homes.

The main argument that I hear over and over again is that if you are not a wrongdoer you have nothing to fear. It is of course true that CCTV and these other methods of surveillance are most feared by wrongdoers. One way they avoid revealing their identity is to wear their hoods up - the so called ‘hoodies’ of London. No doubt other methods will be devised to avoid these newer forms of detection too. But then the Police will find fresh ways of penetrating those defences and so on and so on. It is a never ending war between the forces for wrong and the forces of the Law.

So what is the answer that I give to those who say that right-doers have nothing to fear from CCTV and the ever more sophisticated methods of surveillance? What answer can I give?

For young people today this is one of those cases where something you grow up with seems acceptable because you have known no different. So you just accept it. When I was young I accepted the radio as a perfectly ordinary facility to be enjoyed whenever I wanted. But to my father and grandfather it was a wonderful invention that never ceased to amaze them! In my lifetime, television has arrived in common use, along with the computer, and both of these seem incredibly wonderful to me - but to the latest generation they are completely normal and to be taken as really quite ordinary.

So it is with surveillance. To someone who grew up in true freedom - that is, unwatched, unobserved wherever they were and whatever they were doing - these cameras seem a terrible imposition and a very real infringement on their liberty. But to youngsters they are simply a fact of life. The Police need them (they got the nail bomber, didn’t they?) and so we should just accept them, they say.

Well, I don’t accept them. Nor do I accept that my medical records should be on a data base accessed by hundreds if not thousands of people - a database that will be hacked into as certainly the sun will rise tomorrow morning. Nor do I want my DNA taken and recorded. Nor do I want my emails record kept and available for consultation. Nor do I want all the big trading companies to have ‘sales profiles’ of me - what I spend where I spend it and what my likes and dislikes are. I don’t even want Tescos to have details of my shopping basket!

The road we are all on leads, I believe, to a potential hell. It creates a huge hostage to fortune. By that I mean that it lays the population, so tabulated and recognised and observed, open to terrible abuse in the future by governmental agencies that may work behind the scenes. It is all very well the Government saying that the data will not be accessed wrongly - but that is today and it is only an aspiration. Tomorrow when the political climate has changed and once the data base has settled down and ways to tap into the information have been found - that is when the real trouble will start. Or - even more likely - there will be a botch up and rogues will access this private data.

The whole point of what I am trying to say is that there is a fearful synergy developing as technology advances. As we become increasingly traceable, recognisable and observable with better and better technology, then our private lives lose their essential privacy. We become like ants in a nest, watched from above - open for examination.

It is easy to ridicule the view I am expressing. It is easy to say that if you are not a wrongdoer then what is the harm in all this loss of privacy. But, with the present rate of technological advance, it will be too late twenty years down the line for the population to reverse what is now developing - indeed, what has already developed. CCTV is being relied on more and more and the forces of law and order would be unacceptably crippled without them.

In a decade or two I will be dead but I am profoundly grateful that I was born in a time when the individual citizen had true freedom. A time when he was not spied on all the time and his every movement watched and recorded. I know that sense of freedom and, while it is very hard to express in words, I would not willingly sacrifice it for any number of successes by the Police. I am profoundly grateful that I lived in a time when the novel ‘1984’ seemed to be set many decades in a hypothetical future, when life would be hell. And I am profoundly sorry for all those who now have to live under such surveillance as we already have. And of course this is only the beginning - The Police will have to grapple with terrorists and bombs and all sorts of weird and twisted people over the foreseeable future. They are profoundly grateful for CCTV and similar techniques. They want the whole population tabulated and registered for identity cards and their DNA recorded. They are never going to give up these aids to detection without a huge struggle. They want to keep them!

I doubt whether a struggle will be needed. I think that the population - and especially the younger generation - is sleepwalking into a surveillance society where their privacy is being stripped from them without them even being aware that it is happening. They accept the Police argument without question.

There has been talk recently about Christians in this country coming under pressure from an unbelieving society around them. The press report that the advisor to the Archbishop of Canterbury has recently given him a report that talks of Christians in Britain eventually having to become like resistance fighters - going underground in order to survive. If the Government turns against Christians at some time in the future - or against gays - or against x (you fill in the blank) is it not obvious that all these powers of surveillance and detection will be turned against them?

How else could the Police do their job? It is as obvious as the nose on your face that all the new technology could be used in a fearsome way. Maybe it will have to go that way - in order to protect society from the bombers and the terrorists. But beware - in the process of trying to defend ourselves we are sleepwalking into a frightening loss of freedom.

Parliament has before it a proposal that people with a personality defect should be taken into custody before they do any evil deed. It is designed for the very few people who are set on the road to do extreme evil because of their psychological makeup. There will be much argument - but the proposals show quite clearly the direction in which society is moving. The idea that a personality defect can get you locked up before you do any wrong is horrendous.

We do of course lock up mentally sick people, on medical certification. But people with a personality defect? Forty years ago it was a general view that homosexuals had a personality defect. And there are probably plenty of fundamentalists and evangelical Christians who still believe that today. Is the danger to freedom not obvious? Then why is it we are drifting into becoming a society with intrusive surveillance? A society where privacy of the individual is flying out of the window?

Unless the bulk of people begin to recognise what is happening because of developing technology I fear that our society will proceed too far down the road for us ever to return to the carefree days when the individual could live his life without intrusive governmental surveillance. The reality of terrorism, murder and all the other evils of lawlessness are upon us and if we let our law enforcement agencies rely on these methods of surveillance too much then we shall, I fear, lose one of the inalienable rights that our forefathers fought so long and hard for.

Tony Cross

January 2007


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