The Total Surveillance of Public Space
Our 21st Century is heralded as the information society, a digital age characterized by information superhighways. This technologically 'wired world' is seen as a neutral indicator of our modernity. But is there a dark side? Because of advances of information and communication technologies (ICTs), all of us inadvertently provide access to a great deal of information about our likes and tastes. Everywhere we go, we leave information trails monitored by the credit card companies, who target us with products or can tell when our cards are not being used in normal transaction patterns. Arguably all of this is to our benefit, we are consumers of these products and can choose not to provide this information, or can we?
The reality may be somewhat different. All of this atomised and disaggregated information can be manipulated, aggregated to become a much fuller picture of our lives in the hands of the data-gatherers, the data-miners, those who wish to use our information in new and novel ways to provide us with services. Alternatively, there are those who undertake the same work for more nefarious means, the criminals, the modern day stalkers, those who might borrow our identities using electronic means, those who want to monitor us - they are all out there working away, some of them even working for corporations or our governments.
We are witnessing an industrialisation of the facility to invade privacy. Some hidden dimensions of this process have been revealed by recent reports to the European Parliament which identified the Echelon surveillance networks capable of intercepting all our private emails, telephone calls and faxes. We know that globalisation has removed geographical limitations to the flow of data, particularly via the Internet leading to a rapid elimination of technological barriers between information systems as they become increasingly interoperable with other digital systems. Computers are being amalgamated with surveillance camera systems to provide real time 'dataveillance'. We are entering a time when everyone's movements can be continuously tracked.
Nowhere is this process more visible than in the UK where virtually every big city has its own network of closed circuit television cameras (CCTV) cameras, ostensibly there for crime control. However, one of the most sophisticated studies on the utility of CCTV to reduce crime and the fear of it (prepared in 1999 by Professor Jason Ditton for the Scottish Office, showed it did neither. However once implanted into city street architecture, CCTV is rarely if ever removed. In Newham in London this process has been taken further with the advent of surveillance based on neural networks. The Newham Mandrake system of 80 street cameras, 11 mobile camera units and plans for a further 80 cameras on an adjacent residential estate, can recognise the faces held in its attached databanks. (The recognition process is reportedly only 80% accurate so one fifth of its targets are falsely accused).
Meanwhile in central London, the Racal Talon system can identify, trace and track the licence plates of all vehicles entering the capital. Plans to expand such a system are well advanced. Simon Davies, Director of Privacy International says: "For the next five years, the Home Office will oversee the construction of the world's biggest road and vehicle surveillance system. When completed, it will identify and track the movements of nearly all vehicles in Britain. Thousand of number-plate camera will be installed on motorways, main roads, key junctions and tunnels, as well as all ports and airports nationwide". These developments are happening at a time when the UK government plans to put the face of every second adult into a national data base by 2005.
The political implications of the proliferation of such a machinery of mass supervision should not be lost on the citizens of Austria. Their associated 'chill effect' no longer needs spelling out here. Such erosions of privacy demands a healthy public debate on democratic accountability touched perhaps with a sense of humour. That process has already begun in Vienna last year with the inauguration of the Austrian 'Big Brother Awards'. (See Bigbrother.awards.at) The initiative deserves support.