The dark world envisioned by George Orwell took another small step forward yesterday in his merry old English home. And while it’s not quite as terrifying as a trip to Room 101 in the Ministry of Love, it is nonetheless quite gut wrenching in its own right.
Those now infamous "talking" closed circuit cameras (CCTV) that were only supposed to be part of a "pilot" project are now being extended into 20 other areas.
The cameras, which until now have only been used in Middlesbrough, England, have been used by government officials there to verbally correct the behavior of those being monitored by using a loud speaker attached to the roving eye of the camera.
Since their installation, the cameras have let local workers in a control centre monitor the behavior of the public at large and correct them if they feel they are doing something wrong.
In all, nearly $1million dollars will be spent to upgrade existing cameras, enabling officials to tell people off from afar for various reasons, ranging from littering to anti-social behavior.
Not surprisingly, the move comes as Prime Minister Tony Blair’s administration attempts to impose a "respect agenda" on its citizens by cracking down on what it deems as questionable public behavior.
Glossing over the move, Home Secretary John Reid acknowledged to the BCC that there would be some people, "in the minority who will be more concerned about what they claim are civil liberties intrusions."
And in words that could have come straight out of 1984, Reid added that the talking cameras did not constitue "secret surveillance," since "It’s very public and interactive."
Going even further, Downing Street’s "respect tsar" Louise Casey said that not only did the cameras reduce bureaucracy, but they "nipped problems in the bud."
Even children were used to add to the great big happy face put on it by the government. Reid added that schools in many areas were now holding competitions for children to become the "voices" of the new cameras. Oh Joy!
But not everyone was quite as taken in with all of the happy talk of a sanitized public utopia.
Human rights group Privacy International now says that Britain has become the worst member of the European Union in regards to protecting individual privacy. The group cited evidence that the country is now under "endemic surveillance."
That followed an earlier report, by a group of academics called the Surveillance Studies Network, that said the UK was the "most surveilled country" of all of the industrialized Western states.
There are an estimated 4.2 million cameras now in Britain. That’s one camera now for every 14 people. Moreover, the UK also now holds the world’s biggest database of DNA with over 3.6 million samples.
It’s a growing tangle of technology and bureaucracy that has enlivened its opposition critics. Just last month, leader of the Commons Jack Straw told the Parliament that an inquiry into the growth of the surveillance society would soon be announced.
The inquiry is thought to include discussion about the impact of identity cards, the DNA database, and the increasing use of cameras to spy on its citizens.
Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis welcomed the move. "Under Labour," he said, "we have moved progressively towards a surveillance society with the government’s obsession with ID cards and the DNA database being just two examples."
"What is extremely sinister however," Davis said, "is that Labour refuses to be straight about their intentions."
But by being either sinister, or just merely prudent the UK continues down its increasingly slippery path.
It was only just last year when Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas warned that the UK risked "sleep-walking into a surveillance society."
Its latest move only has quickened that pace.
And if we’re not careful, some of the remnants of Orwell’s vision could someday become part of a grim reality for us all.
Ignorance is Strength, you know.
In the coming weeks, I’ll go even deeper into Orwell’s Big Brother because the UK isn’t the only place where technology is being used to keep an eye on us.
Wishing you happiness, health, and wealth,
Steve Christ, Editor