Thursday, September 21, 2006


An article in a newspaper this week shows the latest development in CCTV technology. As well as photographing every move we make in our town centres, there are 7 new CCTV machines installed in Middlesborough, with loudspeakers attached to them which, if they see you doing something they consider unsavoury, give you a telling off. So it will now be “Oi, pick that chewing gum up”, or “Don’t drop that cigarette packet, you slut!”, or even, “Look girl, if you want to wander around showing us all of you navel region, you could at least go on a diet.” Actually, I quite approve of the last one!

There are I’m told, and I’m certainly not going to count them, over four million CCTV camera operating in this country. Four million! That’s nearly one for every ten of us. No other country comes anywhere near that number. Now, why on earth is that?

The scary thing is that we’ve now become accustomed to being scrutinised and tracked by someone or other, almost permanently. And am I the only one who is at all worried about this creeping surveillance? The younger generation, having grown up with it all, to a man, do not seem to mind. And by the time they decide that they do, it will be way too late.

The inexorably increasing list of ways we are digitally tracked in our lives is actually one of the few things which can stop me sleeping at night. I drove to Manchester and back today, a round trip of some 200 miles, and was photographed, along with my car, some 2-300 times. My car registration was recorded umpteen times, along with where I was, at what speed I was travelling, and at what time. How dangerous is all that. I spent most of the journey looking sideways up the motorway, to make sure they got my “right” side in all the pictures. Driving using only one eye is no laughing matter! In spite of this, I understand a car is stolen every 2 seconds in this country.

My Debit cards leave a continual personal, timed, smear of my existence, my purchases and my travels. My “Nectar” card (what a stupid name that is!) is recording all my personal peccadillos in Sainsburys, tracking everything I buy like a faithful Labrador. Actually, I know of no Labrador that could record what I buy in a supermarket, so that’s a bit of metaphoric licence. So, in order to put it (the Nectar card, not the dog) off the scent and make it think I’m a New Man, I now have to buy a whole pile of virtuous things like Tofu, Mung Beans and Lentils, none of which I can stand, binning them immediately in the Recycling Containers outside in the Carpark. Actually, I’ve just realised – there’s probably a CCTV camera out there recording my every action, product barcode by Product barcode as they go in the bin, and subtracting it from my Nectar Points total, so I’m probably stuffed anyway.

My phone is continuously telling someone all the time (God knows who) where I am, or more accurately where it is? Thank goodness I keep forgetting to take it with me. So some electronic cross-checker thing somewhere must be getting a fit of the heebie-jeebies trying to reconcile a Credit Card purchase in Hereford, with a phone being used minutes later in Birmingham, and then checking on the position of my car to arbitrate, finding that I’m actually in Cheadle Hulme. Sod them.

As if that’s not enough, we’re now faced with a grand plan by Those in Charge to remove the Road Fund Licence, and replace it with an electronic tagging system in every car. It will cost around £300, and you can guess who’s going to have to pay for that little gem. It will be a bit like the one used for Offenders on Parole, and will beam my every driving move to some faceless machine, so they will not only know where I am and when I’m there, but to add financial insult to it all, they will then issue me a bill to charge me for it.

This will be matched in a similar timescale, by our friend the Identity Card scheme, which as we all know, because the Government tells us so, will catch all the terrorists in this country, as well as stopping all Illegal immigrants, in a credit card sized flash. And all for the miserly sum of £18 billion. Do they think we came up the Clyde on a bicycle?

But the really worrying thing here is Why, and perhaps more insidiously, Who wants all these images and all this information? The police will, no doubt, tell you it brings the crime rate down having all these CCTV machines in our town centres. And if it’s not crime prevention, it will no doubt be fundamental to eliminating the terrorist threat. It’s always the terrorist threat. I mean we’re overrun with them in Oswestry. Quite what “they” in Cheltenham do with the trillions of inane text messages sent by the Great Unwashed who seem to spend their waking lives, their hands ablur on their phones, telling their mates that they’re “on the train”, or “outside MacDonalds”.

For reasons I can’t really explain, I feel hugely uncomfortable about this whole issue of the insidious erosion of Individual Liberty by the State. I am not a dangerous criminal, and have no plans to become one. I simply feel it’s an inalienable right of mine to go around, where I want, when I want, how I want, without permanently being tracked on some form of political chromatogram. Once that freedom has gone, it will never, ever return.

Can you imagine any Government back-tracking on all this? They’re all control freaks, by definition, so it will only get worse, whoever is in power. It all seems to be turning into a cross between Orwell’s 1984, and HAL, the computer in the film “2001: A Space Oddessy”, reading the two astronauts' lips, and then sending one of them to their death because it, the machine, was feeling threatened. Except it won’t be Gary Lockwood in Outer Space in a film, it will be you and me.

The only (slightly) comforting thought about it is that Those in Charge seem to be so pluperfectly incompetent in getting these systems firstly to work at all, and secondly to get them to integrate with each other, that it will be ages before the whole thing grips us to the point where we all feel completely imprisoned. The bad thing is – when that happens, it will be too late, and the good thing is – I’ll be pushing up the daisies, probably microchipped by then, so someone can keep track of my whereabouts!

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