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Stars of CCTV

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“Wherever we find purposeful, routine, systematic and focussed attention paid to personal details, for the sake of control, entitlement, management, influence or protection, we are looking at surveillance.”

- Source: A Report of the Surveillance Society, September 2006.

You may have seen at the beginning of November, a flurry of discussion about the ‘surveillance society’ in newspapers and the media more generally.

It came about because of the report from which the above quotation was taken. The full version is here, and the appendix is here.

Between them they’ll give you over 200 pages of reading. If you can’t bear the thought of that, there is also a shorter summary, but if you can possibly find the time you’d do a lot better to read the full report.

According to posters I’ve seen recently, CCTV on transportation is there for my own safety. Well, I’m grateful, and I mean that without the slightest hint of sarcasm. If CCTV protects someone from being mugged or worse, it helps, and on an individual basis that’s good.

But another part of me thinks it is a sad old society that has to threaten those who would cause harm to others with CCTV. It’s also appalled at the statistic mentioned in the report from which my opening quote was taken – that there may be as many as 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain. This works out at one for every 14 of us. A scary statistic indeed.

Of course it is not just CCTV that is working hard to keep an eye on what we are up to. It is possible to build up quite a good picture of our lifestyle, habits and predilections from information gathered without explicit permission by a whole range of agencies.

Supermarkets know what I like to buy. So do the online shopping sites I buy from, and many use that information to make ‘suggestions’ to me. American spy satellites monitor phone conversations and the mobile phone networks know where I’ve been. Indeed the Government would like mobile, fixed line providers and ISPs to retain data they collect for up to two years.

Just one more example of many that exist. I live in London and thanks to my Oystercard my travel patterns are recorded and could be accessed by the police

Computers aren’t the catalyst for surveillance, but they sure help. Bigger databases, faster searching, better data matching, all round cleverer machines. Think about biometric passports, iris scanning and the police National DNA Database. The latter is the largest of its type in the world, the Home Office proudly tells us, holding details of 5.2 per cent of the population. DNA’s predecessor in police work, fingerprinting, has a history which goes back way before computers but benefited hugely from their introduction. There’s a very good history of fingerprint technology and use here.

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