Meeting Big Brother

(Anna Seward)—“Big Brother is Watching You,” announce London signs in George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell published his dystopian novel in 1949, seven years after the first CCTV (closed-circuit television) cameras were installed in Germany to oversee the launch of V-2 rockets. England began to follow suit in the ‘60s. The big jump from a few temporary cameras for major events (Guy Fawkes Day 1960, anti-Vietnam demonstrations in 1968) came in August 1993 with the IRA bombings in Bishopsgate, after which the government spent over £38 million installing the permanent cameras. In modern London, Orwell’s vision of a population under constant surveillance has nearly become reality with somewhere between 4-5 million CCTV cameras (there’s no official figure) spread across the metropolis watching every visitor and resident up to 300 times each and every day.

On first glance, though, you might not even notice the cameras. I certainly didn’t see anything different from America. I saw the occasional sign in shops “CCTV cameras in operation,” but it was a few weeks before one of my American friends pointed out to me the cameras on nearly every corner, fixtures in every tube station, even throughout the typical double-decker bus. It didn’t bother me, though; I’m frequently out after dark alone here, usually taking a bus or the tube between my flat on the South Bank and my friends in Bloomsbury (an affluent neighborhood near King’s Cross station). A little extra surveillance is welcome. It makes me wonder, though, how I would feel about the same cameras in the United States. I don’t think I would be so accepting. There’s a weird trust I have in British government, probably because I know less about its history; there are no wiretapping scandals I’m aware of that make me wonder what they do with the footage. I’m happy to believe that everything is destroyed after 30 days, that both government intentions and actions are pure.

There’s even something reassuring about the debate over its effectiveness.

“A joint Home Office and police report recently found 80% of CCTV pictures are of such poor quality they cannot be used for detecting crime, and a police surveillance expert estimated last year that just 3% of crimes were solved by CCTV.” (source)

If they’re so ineffective, how threatening can they be to my privacy? There has been some protest against the surveillance (CCTV vandalism, small votes against local expansion) but nothing like what it would be in America, were a similar crime prevention policy put to the vote (not that it would even get to the vote). It’s impossible to imagine a modern American politician announcing, as Prime Minister John Major did in 1994, “I have no doubt we will hear some protest about a threat to civil liberties. Well, I have no sympathy whatsoever for so-called liberties of that kind.”

Parliamentary reports are quick to mention the less obvious crime prevention wrapped up in CCTV use. There’s more to the system than the literal catching of criminals. CCTV creates an effect similar to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison,an institution that encourages self-policing as the prisoners know they are under watch by the guard in the central tower at all times.

Perhaps CCTV would not really be able to identify a car thief, but it might deter the individual from committing the crime in the first place. This effect isn’t quantifiable, but I can’t believe that this self-policing instinct has not made it into the general British consciousness. Crime certainly still happens in London, but I think the simple fact that British police do not carry guns speaks to the success of these crime prevention practices.

Ultimately, I’m not sure I have an opinion either way. It’s hard even to push myself to have one. There’s a part of me that thinks, “Not my country, not my problem,” whenever I’m confronted with foreign law. I can’t say I have a real problem with the recording of three months of my life, my car stealing days are long past me anyway (a joke; please don’t deport me, England). It seems Big Brother isn’t so threatening after all, especially since it’s difficult to picture Elizabeth II sentencing me to jail for thought crime.