Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, November 06, 2006

Surveillance and Democracy

In 1990, I stood with a group of American teachers on the East Berlin side of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and gawked at the surveillance cameras still attached to the former East German government buildings. The cameras had been obviously disabled, but their presence spoke volumes to those of us from the "free world." The dead cameras were relics of the 1984 world of the Communist East.

Fast forward 16 years and we now live in an America where closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras are accepted and expected in nearly all public places. Law enforcement authorities (real and televised) look for secuity camera recordings even before they gather fingerprints.

But the US is far behind the UK when it comes to keeping tabs on public behavior. The average Londoner, it is said, is seen on CCTV cameras 300 times a day. (See Surveillance and CCTV in London.) Privacy International estimates that there are over 4 million surveillance cameras operating in the UK.

Does such surveillance of public activity affect crime rates? everyday behavior? civil society? the psychology of citizenship? political activity? People in the UK are asking those questions, and some of the answers have large political implications. Does surveillance undermine the values, trust, and sense of community necessary for the success of a democratic society?

Here's an excerpt from The Guardian (UK) report on 2 November.

Spy planes, clothes scanners and secret cameras: Britain's surveillance future

  • Privacy watchdog foresees climate of suspicion
  • Move to kickstart debate over level of monitoring

"...Today, Richard Thomas, the watchdog entrusted by the government to protect people's privacy, sounds a strong warning that Britain is 'waking up to a surveillance society that is all around us'.

"The information commissioner warns that technology is already being extensively and routinely used to track and record the everyday activities and movements of Britons, whether they are working, resting or playing. He is also warning that such 'pervasive' surveillance is likely to spread in the coming years...

"Mr Thomas is worried that many people do not realise that they are being watched, since the surveillance is often invisible or discreet. He has commissioned a report from experts to predict how technologies are likely to be used to keep tabs on people in 2016. The information commissioner wants to kickstart a debate on whether people are prepared to accept this level of surveillance...

"'Surveillance activities can be well-intentioned and bring benefits. They may be necessary or desirable - for example, to fight terrorism and serious crime, to improve entitlement and access to public and private services, and to improve healthcare. But unseen, uncontrolled or excessive surveillance can foster a climate of suspicion and undermine trust'...

"[Experts]... predict that older people will feel increasingly isolated as relatives use cameras and sensors to check up on them without paying them a visit. Electronic chips will be implanted in some of the elderly, letting carers and family members locate them more easily.

"Dr David Murakami Wood, who headed the study, said: 'Surveillance is not a malign plot hatched by evil powers to control the population. But the surveillance society has come about almost without us realising'.

"Although he emphasised its benefits, Dr Wood warned: 'It can create real problems for individuals - social exclusion, discrimination and a negative impact on their life chances. Unfortunately the dominant modes of surveillance expansion in the 21st century are producing situations where distinctions of class, race, gender, geography and citizenship are currently being exacerbated and institutionalised'.

And from the BBC on the same date: Britain is 'surveillance society'

"Fears that the UK would 'sleep-walk into a surveillance society' have become a reality, the government's information commissioner has said.

"Richard Thomas, who said he raised concerns two years ago, spoke after research found people's actions were increasingly being monitored.

"Researchers highlight 'dataveillance', the use of credit card, mobile phone and loyalty card information, and CCTV...

"Dr David Murakami-Wood told BBC News that, compared to other industrialised Western states, the UK was 'the most surveilled country'.

"'We have more CCTV cameras and we have looser laws on privacy and data protection,' he said.

"'We really do have a society which is premised both on state secrecy and the state not giving up its supposed right to keep information under control while, at the same time, wanting to know as much as it can about us'...

Related sites to check out:


At 9:21 AM, Blogger Ken Wedding said...

And on 6 November, the BBC reported that Blair goes on ID card offensive

"Prime Minister Tony Blair has said he will push on with ID cards - insisting that as with CCTV and DNA the issue is one of "modernity" not civil liberties...

"The Tories and Lib Dems oppose ID cards - which are not due to become compulsory until at least 2010 - and say they would scrap them if they got into power...

"Mr Blair said ID cards would... help tackle illegal immigration, terrorism and identity fraud, while also protecting the vulnerable and the solving of crimes...

"ID cards and other issues, such as measures to tackle anti-social behaviour, CCTV cameras and the growing DNA database, were often portrayed as civil liberties issues..."


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