Citizen, Please Report to Room 101

Nearly a decade ago I read The Transparent Society, David Brin’s take on how to handle encroachments on our privacy. At one point in the book, he mentioned off-hand that the UK was blanketed with CCTV cameras. Goodness, I thought. That’s a lot of TV cameras watching citizens. Then I forgot that little factoid.

That helps explain my surprise to find out that there are 32 cameras within 200 yards of George Orwell’s home.

Map of cameras around George Orwell's home

But having one camera for every 14 people in the country isn’t enough. More progress is needed. In fact, what’s needed is CCTV cameras that talk back. Now police can scold litterers, warn people who are getting into fights, and more.

Home Secretary John Reid told BBC News there would be some people, “in the minority who will be more concerned about what they claim are civil liberties intrusions”.

How silly of people to be concerned. After all, what could go wrong?

Marie Brewster, 26, a young mother, appeared on TV news reports after a camera operator mistakenly thought she had dropped litter and boomed out a reprimand from the control centre in Middlesbrough.

In some ways, I prefer the talking cameras. They make their presence felt in ways quiet, unobtrusive cameras don’t. They remind people that they are being watched. And if the monitors are going to make mistakes, better they make them publically than quietly.

The UK implemented the Data Protection Act to deal with privacy concerns, and has many CCTV cameras registered with the Information Commissioner’s Office. The US has no such provisions. Ignoring this issue isn’t going to make it better. I spent part of this week looking at the latest in automatic license plate technology (verdict: easily usable in real time) and facial recognition (verdict: not yet, and probably not for several more years, but getting frighteningly better every year). I’d much prefer we have an expanded Freedom of Information Act and others to handle these technologies, since it will take a while for the inevitable ACLU cases to produce applicable case law.

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One Comment

  1. on April 13, 2007 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, I’m really quite worried that reasonable legislation governing the inevitable use of these technologies is not going to square with how your average American would really like them to see used [which, of course, would be to catch other people doing shit they don't want to get caught doing].

    But expecting Congress to get out in front of anything is just hopeful wishcasting on both our parts, isn’t it? Maybe it’ll be better in another generation, but … probably not right now.