Britain Pushes The Limits of Modern Surveillance

British citizens are debating the latest government surveillance efforts that both see and hear, with references to George Orwell, among other privacy complaints.

No country has employed visual surveillance as aggressively as Great Britain. Whether for traffic management or anti­terrorism efforts, the United Kingdom has put cameras everywhere. Britain, according to one CCTV consulting firm, has more than 4 million cameras deployed, or nearly as many as the rest of the world combined, excluding the United States. Now, with the introduction of The Bug, Great Britain has fully embraced its role—for better or worse—as the vanguard proponent of public surveillance.

The Bug is a cluster of eight cameras that can scan in any direction. The cameras are “smart,” meaning they employ software for advanced functionality. In this case, the software uses algorithms to look for suspicious behavior—sudden running or wild flailing, for example. The Bug can identify 50 suspicious traits. It can then automatically lock on to a subject and follow that person or object. The Bug also has speakers, so someone monitoring can issue instructions or warnings.

The Bug has been in testing in a borough called Luton, about 30 miles northwest of London, for more than 18 months. Exeter and Chester are planning to deploy The Bug as well.

A key selling point for the company that makes the device is that it provides unmanned visual evidence if events come to trial. The company also says the software can deem certain areas off-limits and unrecordable.

But privacy advocates believe The Bug is a frightening encroachment on privacy, eerily similar to technology featured prominently in George Orwell’s seminal book 1984. In that book, a remote voice from a loud speaker reminds Winston Smith to perform his daily exercises.

In a story in London’s Sunday Times, Privacy International’s noted privacy advocate Simon Davies is quoted saying, “I made a prediction 10 years ago that if we were not careful there would be no escaping the gaze of the lens. We have reached that stage.” In that same story, a spokesman for the company that makes the $10,000 Bug said the device isn’t intrusive even if it picks up an innocent person’s behavior, because “the innocent have nothing to fear.”

Most of those commenting on the story at The Times site refuted that point, noting that the cameras remove personal choice from the privacy equation and create a presumption of guilt, rather than the traditional civil liberty of innocence until proven guilty.

“Picking up on facial expressions and body language to prophesy a crime? Hang on a minute—isn’t that another name for the thought police?” asked Chris of London, posting on the story. Mark Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, agrees. “The U.K. is embracing a soft totalitarianism,” he says. “There is an enormous amount of control that flows from the individual to the government when there is this degree of surveillance.”

Next up in Great Britain: drones, toy plane–size pilotless flying machines with cameras attached that can travel at 50 mph and zoom in on a face from 500 feet.

This story, "Britain Pushes The Limits of Modern Surveillance" was originally published by CSO.

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