by Marina Hyde in the Guardian. An article one cannot help but agree with. In fact some of us have been saying the same thing for a long time.
Closed-circuit TV cameras are the crime-fighting tool so fiendishly sophisticated that they can be foiled by the wearing of a hood. Yet having stuck 4.2 million of the things around this country, with nary a consultation on the matter - nor any significant impact on crime statistics - efforts to pimp them to 2.0 status continue
This week it emerged that scientists at Portsmouth University are developing "listening" cameras. Artificial intelligence software will be able to recognise sounds such as breaking glass, so that, when such a noise is detected, they can rotate in its direction and capture the act of vandalism/terrorism/God that resulted in a milk bottle falling off your doorstep. I paraphrase slightly, but given that the most recent Home Office report on the matter found that better street lighting is seven times more effective at cutting crime than CCTV, the truly suspicious behaviour is our deepening obsession with surveillance.
The past few years have thrown up dozens of instances which made one wince to be a citizen of this septic isle, but a personal low came with the discovery that 500,000 bins had been fitted with electronic tracking devices. Transponders in bins ... Could any morning news item be more designed to force one back against the pillows, too embarrassed about one's country to start the day? Yes, as it turned out. A couple of months ago it was discovered that Poole borough council, in Dorset, had used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act - designed to track serious criminals and terrorists - to determine whether a school applicant and her parents lived where they said they did. They did, and were appalled to discover they had been spied on for three weeks, the subject of surveillance notes such as "female and three children enter target vehicle and drive off". Target vehicle, if you please! The thought of some deep-cover council drone jotting this stuff down as though it were an elite Delta Force operation is not as funny as it is horrifying.
Just who are these people, these swelling legions of unelected, ill-qualified monitors who wield such extraordinary power in our surveillance society? Clarification in one case came last year, when the civilian in charge of a Worcester police station's surveillance team was suspended after detectives found, among one day's footage, a 20-minute sequence of close-ups of a woman's cleavage and backside as she walked oblivious through the streets. Whether the woman ever discovered she was the star of a kind of pervert Truman Show is not recorded. But the offending monitor escaped with a warning and was - unbelievably - back in post within weeks.
In some city centres, such as Middlesbrough, speakers have been put on the cameras, so that those monitoring can interact with potential miscreants. Let's hope these remote bossy boots imagine they're involved in some high-level negotiation, in which they talk down a teenager from his decision to drop a hamburger wrapper on the pavement.
The former home secretary John Reid, on whose draconian watch the Middlesbrough scheme was approved, even suggested at its launch that schoolchildren should enter a competition to become the voice of the cameras - once again laying bare the government's desire to co-opt its citizens into the surveillance process at all levels. We are, of course, coming up to the time of year when we are ordered to shop our neighbours for acts of hosepipe, while the Shoreditch Trust recently trialled a scheme encouraging residents to watch live CCTV feeds on a special local channel, the better to assist in policing.
For all this creepy "outreach", though, the only hands-down beneficiaries of our CCTV obsession (apart from the revenue gatherers) have been broadcasters. For no good reason, all manner of TV networks have been furnished with hours of footage to pad out their witless police chase documentaries, or offensively cheap "street crime UK" shows. Britain's CCTV network: proudly supporting the Bravo channel.
The worst thing is the blithe insistence that this is all necessary and normal. We are watched more closely, by more cameras, with each passing day. But so faultlessly designed is our society that we have never come close to having a say on it.
There's a great bit in Woody Allen's movie Deconstructing Harry when Robin Williams's character goes out of focus, appearing as a sort of fuzzy version of himself, which sounds increasingly like the sort of sickness that should be courted by any attractive woman keen to walk through Worcester. That said, she could always don a hood. Yet there does seem a vaguely depressing irony in governments insisting that constant surveillance is essential to prevent our being overrun by repressive regimes who'd make us all cover our heads and the like. It's these initiatives that drive even the most pliant members of society to dream of taking just that precaution themselves, if only for a bit of privacy.