This essay, on the rise of surveillance culture was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on the Brexit Party) It was published on 19 May 2019, under the headline ‘As surveillance culture grows, can we even hope to escape its reach?’

Sometimes, it is the very ordinariness of a scene that makes it terrifying. So it was with a clip from last week’s BBC documentary on facial recognition technology. It shows the Metropolitan police trialling a facial recognition system on an east London street

A man tries to avoid the cameras, covering his face by pulling up his fleece. He is stopped by the police and forced to have his photo taken. He is then fined £90 for ‘disorderly behaviour’. ‘What’s your suspicion?’ someone asks the police. ‘The fact that he’s walked past clearly masking his face from recognition,’ replies one of the plainclothes police operating the system.

If you want to protect your privacy, you must have something to hide. And if you actually do something to protect your privacy, well, that’s ‘disorderly behaviour’.

There is considerable panic in the West about the Chinese tech firm Huawei acting as a Trojan horse for Beijing. But perhaps we should worry less about the tech company than about the social use of technology. Much has been written about Beijing’s development of a dystopian surveillance state. It’s not just in China, though, that what one observer has called ‘algorithmic governance’ is beginning to take hold.

As the tech entrepreneur Maciej Ceglowski pointed out in testimony to a US Senate committee hearing this month, ‘Until recently, even people living in a police state could count on the fact that the authorities didn’t have enough equipment or manpower to observe everyone, everywhere, and so enjoyed more freedom from monitoring than we do living in a free society today.’

Britain has long been one of the most closely monitored societies in the world. There are at least 4.9 million CCTV cameras in Britain – one for every 14 people. Some estimates suggest that 20% of all CCTV cameras are in the UK.

Now Britain is at the forefront of the rollout of facial recognition technology. Police forces are using it to monitor shopping centres, music festivals, sports events and political demonstrations.

The technology is currently beset with myriad problems. It is inaccurate – according to the campaign group Big Brother Watch, in police trials ‘a staggering 95% of “matches” wrongly identified innocent people’ – and there is a major issue of racial bias in the algorithms.

The real problem, however, the technology writer Jamie Bartlett suggests, is not that it doesn’t work, but, rather, that it may work very well. ‘Despite the problems,’ he argues, ‘I expect it will be very effective at tackling crime and keeping us safe. At what cost?’

In other words, how much do we treasure privacy? Are we all willing to be treated like that man on an east London street?

Nor is it just facial recognition technology that’s the issue here. Almost without realising, we have created an entire infrastructure of surveillance. If you’re reading this online, you’re being tracked. If you bought a print version of the newspaper at a supermarket, your purchase was probably recorded. Every time you go shopping, use public transport, make a phone call, engage with social media, you’re likely to have been tracked.

Surveillance is at the heart, too, of ‘smart cities’. From Amsterdam to Singapore, from Dubai to Toronto, cities across the globe are embracing technology to collect data on citizens, ostensibly to improve public services and make urban spaces function better.

What smart cities also enable is a new form of policing. As the mayor of Rio de Janeiro said of the ‘integrated urban command centre’ built in preparation for the 2016 Olympics and the World Cup, the system ‘allows us to have people looking into every corner of the city, 24 hours a day, seven days a week’.

Buses that run on time and rubbish that is efficiently cleared are a good (though in most smart cities, and in Rio especially, neither actually happens). There is, however, more to the good life than an ordered city. Human flourishing, as Ceglowski pointed out to the US Senate, requires the existence of a sphere of life outside public scrutiny; not only within the intimacy of the home but also in semi-private spaces such as the workplace or the church or the pub. It’s that kind of space shielded from scrutiny that increasingly is vanishing.

In a number of US cities, such as San Francisco and Oakland, there have been pushbacks against mass surveillance. Yet, as Ceglowski observed, one of the features of the ‘new world of ambient surveillance’ is that ‘we cannot opt out of it, any more than we might opt out of automobile culture by refusing to drive’.

That is possibly the most disturbing thought of all.



The photo, of a camera on London’s Hungerford Bridge, is mine.


  1. scholar73

    Surveillance at some point requires analysis & action by an actual human. But people engaged in one activity can’t focus on another (apparent multi-tasking is just the fast switch of attention).

    Hence the South Yorkshire police announced their intention to surveille comments online, checking for “non-crime hate speech”, while being oblivious to the hundreds of teenagers being raped and trafficked under their noses.

    • damon

      I think the difference with this new face recognition technology is that it’s hoped that computers will do all the hard work and draw police attention to particular people that the computers have recognised.
      Also, a lot of surveillance cameras are not watched in real time, or even afterwards, unless some incident takes place. Only then are they are looked at and analysed.
      I think they’ve had a big effect on London buses as far as I can see.
      It’s only about fifteen years ago that many buses in south London were in covered in graffiti and window scratching. Upstairs at the back, you could hardly see out of the windows sometimes.
      Since they rolled out the new generation of bus CCTV cameras, that all seems to be greatly reduced.
      Also, those buses are so well covered with cameras, I think that even anti-social and sometimes criminal youths now have to behave themselves better while travelling on the bus. I have felt a bit reassured myself sometimes.
      As if you do commit a serious crime on a bus, there’s now a good chance that the police can figure out who you are.

  2. damon

    Quote: ‘Despite the problems,’ he argues, ‘I expect it will be very effective at tackling crime and keeping us safe. At what cost?’

    Yes indeed – that’s it. Who’s worse, the snooping police, or criminals who will harm you and your loved ones at any chance they can get?
    Personally, I’d say the criminals and anti-social people are worse.
    I don’t really trust the police to always do the right thing, but they are still your ally.
    They’re just not a fully reliable ally.
    But compared to the criminals and anti-social bullies, they are far better – and they are all that stands between relative civility and anarchy. You can see what can happen when law and order breaks down from time to time.
    Like during the English riots of 2011.

    I watched the video of the police out in Stratford east London – and I have a degree of sympathy with the man who covered his face and was then pulled over by the police and questioned as to why he was doing that.
    And then getting a fixed penalty fine too. It’s not great.
    Neither were the police stickers on their vehicle that said “TOTAL POLICING”

    However, who is it they are trying to detect with this new technology – and how serious is the blight that criminals inflict on our society? That last bit is really subjective and people will have different opinions.
    Some people actually like living in “edgy” not fully law abiding places. And the fact that their neighbours are often victims of crime doesn’t really bother them too much. Or they see it as a price worth paying for a freer, less policed society.

    I just read about how the police in London arrested scores of people today in connection with the so-called “County Lines” drugs trade. Which is a pretty vile business by the sounds of it, as they like to get children involved in their operations. I would imagine that those individuals who run that business are precisely the kinds of people the police are looking for when they try to set up these mass surveillance operations.
    They might know who they are and what they’re up to, but just can’t find them – because like any good serious criminal knows, you move around and don’t stay put too long in one place where the police can surprise you with an early morning raid. Many of these serious criminals would still feel confident enough to move around in a busy city though, as they can hide amongst the people.

    How safe it feels living in any particular place is a really subjective thing.
    I can’t stand the “hoodie culture” of London, and it’s just a small part of the reason I try to stay away from London as much as possible. But for MP David Lammy, the hoodie is just part of London culture, particularly with black men, and he tells us to “stop being racist about it” and just deal with it.
    But I prefer places that don’t have that kind of street culture, as I do find it a bit intimidating.
    It can feel like you’re “being trolled” ….. and when you’re just going about your business trying to think of other things, that can be quite annoying.

    There was an example of the police both not being trustworthy, and then doing something positive at the same time, just this weekend in Oldham.

    “Violence breaks out at Tommy Robinson election event”

    In the end, the police kept a bad situation from getting out of control, so that’s good.
    And they’ve filmed all the people who were causing trouble and say they will arrest all those who broke the law.
    That’s good too. But they were incompetent in allowing the situation to develop in the first place, and they and the media are suppressing the story of what actually happened – probably for well intended reasons of not wanting to make it a bigger issue than it already was.
    But still, they way they manipulate stories and come out with very PC and politicised explanations, would certainly be annoying to people who were there, or have bothered to look through the video footage.

  3. Emma L.

    Is disorderly behaviour a crime in UK? This fine seems nearly unbelievable to me, a reader in Germany. Will the man with the fleece really have to pay? No chance to complain and rebuke this successfully?

    • jimb2

      You can always go to court. However, if you lose it costs a lot more than the fine. At least, in this case, good quality evidence is available, haha.

  4. The Clock

    Obviously this sort of thing will make some people feel safer, the “I am more scared of criminals than police” crowd. Just remember, though, the enormous power this gives to the authorities. The next time there is a purge or a genocide, the police you trust today will be using this technology to hunt you down tomorrow.

    • damon

      “The next time there is a purge or a genocide …..”
      That sounds a bit paranoid. Like the gun nuts in the US preparing to fight off the government.

      I’m far more afraid of the criminals than the police.
      Or if not really afraid, just fed up and p’d off that we don’t treat them more harshly.
      When you go to places that wouldn’t put up with the crap that we put up with in our liberal Western societies, you can feel the difference. I’ve been in Ukraine for a few weeks, and have seen zero anti-social and intimidating behaviour. They police quite hard. Even the security people at shopping malls have batons.
      But unlike the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, where they probably need them (given the regular incidents of mobs of youths “kicking off” in there) – here there’s no sign of that kind of thing.
      It’s really nice to be in a place where calmness and lack of agitation seems to the daily experience.
      And you can walk around looking at the map on your phone, without keeping one eye looking out for possible phone snatchers. Or muggers on scooters.

      The kind of people who are MOST against more police powers like this are the kinds of people I saw rioting at the poll tax riot in 1990. Or solicitor activists like Sophie Khan.

      • “I’ve been in Ukraine for a few weeks, and have seen zero anti-social and intimidating behaviour.”
        You also won’t have seen any Muslims there either. Probably because people becoming Muslims is caused by antisocial and intimidating behaviour enforcing “submission” (which translates into Arabic as “islam”; now where have I seen that word before….).

  5. jimb2

    I actually doubt that surveillance can be stopped. It becomes cheaper and better over time, heading for a negligible cost with AI monitoring . Even if you managed to stop the police by political action, there would plenty of private surveillance going on.

    Historically, being anonymous in public is a relatively new thing that only arose in large modern cities. It was not part of the tribal life. Currently, it’s grown to a bit of a fetish, but there is no reason to think that will last forever. We get used to new things and they become the normal. I’d like to see some cost/benefit thinking applied and perhaps some middle ground achieved. Currently, we have on one side the data grabbers and on the other side a bunch of people who welded to a no-benefit-only-harm narrative.

    People change their behaviours (generally for the better!) when the know they are observed can be identified, whether by other humans or information systems. I actually think a solid majority of people – outside a particular demographic of young testosterone-charged males and, of course, full or part time criminals – would happily accept surveillance for the increase in freedom that safe streets and reduced crime brings. The ability to walk their neighbourhood streets at night without stress probably trumps some hypothetical 1984 scenario in most people’s minds. What these people would probably want to fully accept the situation is some idea on what happens to the imagery and why.

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