Are You Watching Closely?

December 17, 2013 § Leave a comment



With a recent pilot scheme to film passengers in the back of taxis set to be launched in the Capital, Edinburgh-dwellers were immediately at their computers, furiously bashing the keyboard in a neck-and-neck race to determine who could comment the fastest. However, with observations such as ‘You’d need a very fast recording speed to capture the meter going round’, it seems Scots have rather failed to grasp the big picture.

And, admittedly, this is not the first time Scotland, or Britain in general for that matter, has managed to overlook the warning signs. Take Orwell’s vision of our future dystopia, for example. His omnipresent government surveillance and parody of the totalitarian impulse, deemed ‘momentous’ in 1949, has now largely taken a back seat in contemporary society, except perhaps in its most exploited form: Channel 4’s Big Brother.

Additionally, French philosopher and social theorist, Michael Foucault, argued that, already by the 90s, society had evolved into a metaphorically imprisoned society, and that the collection of data about each human individual began with their birth. And yet, surveillance is still being largely disregarded in today’s society. Or did you, in fact, realise how many cameras followed you on your walk to work this morning?

Nick Pickles, director of privacy and civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: “Britain’s surveillance culture means when any problem arises, or even when the problem is only perceived, more surveillance cameras are invariably the option. Sadly it does little to tackle the underlying causes of crime and disorder, while impinging on all our privacy. The fact that countries around the world are able to have a lower crime rate with less CCTV should really lead to more questions about the effectiveness of our current, CCTV-led approach.”

With The Guardian unveiling the publications of Edward Snowden in May this year, the American computer specialist became the first former NSA employee to reveal the extent of US surveillance on phone and Internet communications. In addition, the Snowden files also reveal a number of mass-surveillance programmes undertaken by the GCHQ, the UK’s answer to the NSA.

With Snowden himself stating: “It’s not just a US problem. The UK has a huge dog in this fight, they [GCHQ] are worse than the US”, one key question must be put forward: where the hell is the public debate in the UK? The level of complacency of the British public is arguably more shocking than the revelations themselves. In stark contrast with a Pew Research poll revealing that, for the first time since 9/11, Americans are now more worried about civil liberties abuses than terrorism, a recent YouGov survey found that only 19% of British adults say the British Security Services have too many powers. 22% even argue that they do not have enough.



Where, then, is this British indifference stemming from? Are we, as some have suggested, simply ignorant of the extent to which we are now living in a surveillance society?

Daniel Trottier, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Social and Digital Media, argues against this: “There’s a lot we don’t know about concerning PRISM and GCHQ activity, but their ambition is clear. As citizens, we also take reasonable measures to prevent this kind of society. This includes anything from tweaking our privacy settings on Facebook, to abstaining from these kinds of sites.”

Well, My apologies to Daniel Trottier, but I do not believe that simply privatising my Facebook account would aptly obstruct the Government if they were to suddenly suspect me of terrorism. Snowden’s revelations evidently imply something of a much greater scale, that even the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners Lee, just last month described as “chilling” and “insidious”.

One crucial question that rises from the murky depths of metadata therefore is this: Can the British people really trust their Government? David Cameron’s reaction to the Guardian publishing the revelations is perhaps the most telling of all. He accused the national newspaper of damaging national security, warning that if it did not “demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act.” Simply put: the British Government managed to turn attention away from its surveillance programmes and, instead, attempted to turn the British public against the Guardian itself.

How much surveillance can democracy really withstand? The prevailing danger with developing surveillance is that we end up with a small minority of people with total authority, who control and distribute all the private information of society. And what’s that called again? Oh yes, totalitarianism. Whether it is the relatively simple matter of being watched in the back of a taxi, or whether your entire email account has been hacked, surveillance, society’s real-life stalker, is on the increase. Big Brother is watching us. And it high time we withdrew our consent.


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