To passing tourists, catching yet another government poster apprising you of electronic surveillance looming in the distance, the initials “CCTV” can be oddly reminiscent of “CCCP,” the Cyrillicized abbreviation for the U.S.S.R. CCTV is the United Kingdom’s ubiquitous acronym. Nobody needs to be told what it stands for. It accompanies you as you make your way to work, whether by car, bus, train, or taxi. And it’s there waiting for you at the end of your shift, as you go to buy your groceries or head to the movies. Last year, when David Davis resigned from the shadow cabinet because of the remarkably bipartisan insouciance about the “erosion of fundamental British freedoms,” he said there was “a CCTV camera for every 14 citizens.” The British, according to another well-retailed line, are apparently the most video-monitored people in the world other than the North Koreans. In an aside in his new novel The Defector, the American author Daniel Silva lays out the background:
“ ‘So how are the British so certain about what happened?’
“ ‘Their little electronic helpers were watching.’
“Navot was referring to CCTV, the ubiquitous network of 10,000 closed-circuit television cameras that gave London’s Metropolitan Police the ability to monitor activity, criminal or otherwise, on virtually every street in the British capital. A recent government study had concluded that the system had failed in its primary objective: deterring crime and apprehending criminals. Only three per cent of street robberies were solved using CCTV technology, and crime rates in London were soaring. Embarrassed police officials explained away the failure by pointing out that the criminals had accounted for the cameras by adjusting their tactics, such as wearing masks and hats to conceal their identities. Apparently, no one in charge had considered that possibility before spending hundreds of millions of pounds and invading the public’s privacy on an unprecedented scale. The subjects of the United Kingdom, birthplace of Western democracy, now resided in an Orwellian world where their every movement was watched over by the eyes of the state.”
All true, except for the “10,000” cameras, which is certainly an underestimate. By some calculations, they’re now approaching five million (public and private) across the country. On this side of the Atlantic, closed-circuit television is mostly confined to banks and a select few other locations, and they still look like cameras. Not on the streets of London, where ever smaller boxes mounted ever more discreetly to the clutter of curbside signage betray no clue as to their purpose. Not that the authorities are embarrassed by them. Au contraire, notices advertising that you’re in their reassuring presence are almost as frequent as the cameras. Strolling down Piccadilly the other day, I lost count of the number of signs emblazoned “WESTMINSTER CCTV: KEEPING OUR STREETS SAFE,” complete with a cute little CCTV logo that they paid some marketing firm to hire some graphic artist to come up with. Any day now the government will surely unveil some lovable anthropomorphized cartoon figure—Carlton Camera or some such—who’ll appear in public service announcements saying he’s just popped up to keep an eye on you.
But perhaps I overestimate the modern security state’s need to soft-soap its purposes. A couple of years back, London Transport unveiled a poster called “SECURE BENEATH THE WATCHFUL EYES” showing the iconic red double-decker bus making its way across a Thames bridge protected by a sky filled with giant all-seeing eyes. “CCTV & Metropolitan Police on buses,” explained the caption, “are just two ways we’re making your journey home more secure.” The draftsmanship was beautiful, the image a strange conflation of classic London Underground poster art and ’tween-wars Continental Fascist propaganda. You would have thought that anyone who had . . . well, not read but was just dimly aware of the vague gist of Orwell’s 1984 could not possibly have approved such a campaign. But London Transport did, and Londoners more or less accepted it.
If you’re a novelist, it’s impossible to write a story set in Britain without taking CCTV into account. In his new book The Ghosts of Belfast, Stuart Neville writes of his protagonist:
“The truth was he’d slept very little the previous night. It took him an hour and a half to work his way through the streets, avoiding CCTV cameras on his way home.”
Easier said than done. Daniel Silva captures the scale of the enterprise:
“ ‘Were you able to trace the car’s movements with CCTV?’
“ ‘It turned left into Edgware Road, then made a right at St. John’s Wood Road. Eventually, it entered an underground parking garage in Primrose Hill, where it remained for 57 minutes . . . After leaving the garage, it headed northeast to Brentwood, a suburb just outside the M25. At which point, it slipped out of CCTV range and disappeared from sight.’ ”
Did you tell your wife you were kept late at the office but you were in fact parked outside your mistress’s flat at 27b Lucknow Gardens? There’s an electronic record of that somewhere in a government database. Maybe that’s nothing to worry about, maybe no one will ever have cause to dig it out. But it’s in there.
So now the country with the most CCTV cameras in the “civilized” world also has the most hooded youths. On a dismal ride back up to London on a CCTV-fitted train through the Oxfordshire countryside the other Sunday afternoon, I was joined, in an otherwise empty carriage, by three persons in large feature-concealing hooded sweatshirts. In an idle moment while the train was stalled outside a tunnel, I found myself reflecting that, even after an hour in their company, I’d have a job picking them out of a police lineup.
“Er, well, he was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, officer.”
“Did the shadow on his upper chest indicate any other features, such as the length of his nose, or an unusually hirsute mole?”
“It might have, but I couldn’t tell, as the sweatshirt was black.”
“Hmm. A black sweatshirt. Well, that narrows it down a bit.”
Happily, the lads graciously declined to stab me. Not all hooded youths are criminal, but the larger percentage who aren’t favour the garb in part because it flips the finger at the surveillance state. It is, thus, a CCTV-generated fashion statement, and now so widespread that, in the twilight of his premiership, with his usual control-freak instincts, Tony Blair mused on the possibility of banning hooded sweatshirts in order to prevent “anti-social behaviour” and restore “respect on our streets.”
But “respect” is a two-way street. And on Britain’s two-way streets, where the government cameras whir 24-7, the security state signals its contempt for the citizen. And, needless to say, if the Big Blairite Brother had banned “hoodies,” British youth could easily have adopted the burka as the uniform of alienated youth, and Her Majesty’s government wouldn’t have done a thing about it. Mr. Blair’s one-time deputy, an Old Labour bruiser called John Prescott, was once approached at a motorway caff by a gang of hooded yoofs anxious to beat him up and (in a touch of artistic symmetry) videotape the encounter: in a sense, they were proposing to demonstrate their “respect” for CCTV Britain by shooting their own CCTV footage.
So CCTV isn’t simply a new “technique,” as, say, fingerprinting once was. It makes a larger statement about what’s happened to a land that was once, as Daniel Silva acknowledges, the crucible of liberty. Henry Porter’s new novel The Dying Light is set mainly in an English market town in Shropshire that feels as claustrophobic as Communist East Germany, a land in which rural coppers badger you for such amorphous offences as “failing to account for your intentions in a designated area.” Returning to her native sod from a job in New York, the heroine can’t help noticing that there’s “more surveillance than I thought possible in a free country,” and yet the citizenry are quiescent. The Prime Minister is struck by Oliver Cromwell’s choice of job description, “Great Lord Protector”: “That is exactly what you feel leading the country: an acute desire to protect the people”—for the best of motives.
Earlier this year, Greater Manchester Police introduced “Smart Cars”—little bubble vehicles equipped with rotating cameras on 12-foot poles poking through their roofs. As the BBC reported, “Anyone seen driving while distracted—eating at the wheel, playing with the radio or applying makeup for instance—is filmed by the cameras.” Shortly thereafter, they get a letter and a fine.
Henry Porter’s political thriller nudges that on just a wee bit: unmanned four-camera mini-drones sail the skies, tracking the wayward “citizen” even in the remotest thickets of the country. What next? CCTV in private homes? Ah, but we’re already there. This month the “Secretary of State for Children” (another Orwellian touch) announced that 20,000 “problem families” would be put under 24-hour CCTV supervision in their homes. As the Daily Express reported, “They will be monitored to ensure that children attend school, go to bed on time and eat proper meals.”
Orwell’s government “telescreen” in every home is close to being a reality, although even he might have dismissed as too obviously absurd a nanny state that literally polices your bedtime.