[Paleopsych] WP: Grin and Bear It

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Grin and Bear It

    In an age of technology and terror, the British have come to accept
    surveillance cameras. Now they . . .

    By Frances Stead Sellers
    Sunday, July 31, 2005; B01

    Last summer, while my mother was visiting me in the United States,
    burglars broke into her house in rural England and emptied it of much
    of what she held most precious. The thieves knew just what they were
    after, the local bobbies told us as they searched the house for clues.
    They had carefully removed the most valuable pictures, ornaments and
    small pieces of furniture. And they were likely to be back with bigger
    ambitions and a bigger truck.

    One of the police recommendations? Install a closed circuit television
    camera (CCTV) in the house in the hope of getting mug shots of the
    intruders next time they came to help themselves to my mother's

    Smile, you're on Culprit Camera.

    Britain has become the world's premier surveillance society. There are
    more than 4 million unblinking electronic eyes gazing down on shoppers
    and travelers across the country (though far, far fewer human brains
    are dedicated to deciphering the data those eyes record). London's
    railway stations are overseen by some 1,800 cameras, and another 6,000
    are trained on the capital's underground train network and
    double-decker buses, catching the average commuter on videotape about
    300 times a day.

    It's the very ubiquity of the technology that brought the world that
    chilling snapshot of the July 7 bombers sauntering through a station
    en route to mass murder, as well as the four close-ups of the July 21
    terrorists fleeing their botched attempts to redouble the havoc.
    Yesterday, those close-ups were front-page news again, this time
    superimposed with the suspects' names and arrest dates.

    Some people have agonized about the Orwellian implications of such
    surreptitious surveillance, indulging in eye-in-the-sky speculation
    about the invasion of individuals' privacy. Developments such as
    face-recognition technology and computerized tracking of
    out-of-the-ordinary behavior have reawakened anxieties about Big
    Brother. But for the most part, the British have learned to live with
    -- and sometimes even appreciate -- the ever watchful eye. And,
    really, it takes a certain hubris, a strain of self-importance, for
    Mr. and Ms. Ordinary Citizen to imagine that anyone is watching them,

    Who, for heaven's sake, is going to take the time to monitor the
    monitors? London police initially estimated that they would need a
    couple of weeks to go through the mind-numbing hours of tape provided
    to them after the first bombing -- and that would be with the help of
    special officers drafted for such a high-profile investigation. Think
    about it: Two weeks worth of nonstop comings and goings -- watching
    people sit on station platforms, read newspapers, eat sandwiches,
    scratch their noses, consult their watches, in a kind of life-or-death
    game of Where's Waldo?

    Now consider, if you can bear it for one brief moment, watching "A Day
    in the Life of Frances Sellers." I wish I could pretend it was more
    exciting. But even the highlights (allow me a little hubris -- there
    are some) might seem a bit humdrum if you had to endure them day after
    day, night after night. It must be much the same with other forms of
    surveillance. As a journalist friend, who once lived with his young
    family in an apartment in China that was undoubtedly bugged, put it:
    Who's going to separate the hours of potty-training talk from the few
    potentially valuable snippets of conversation? Just imagine the lot of
    the poor Chinese spying flunky, dedicating every minute of his working
    life to tuning in to the messy minutiae of my colleague's life.

    Practicality aside, the philosophical argument over privacy
    essentially bit the dust in Britain more than a decade ago when some
    unforgettable footage made people I know put aside any reservations
    they'd had . Recorded at 15:39 on Feb. 12, 1993, and later broadcast
    nationwide, a grainy CCTV picture showed a trusting toddler taking a
    stranger by the hand and being led out of a Liverpool shopping center.
    Just days later, 2-year-old Jamie Bulger was found bludgeoned to death
    on a railway track, bringing horror to the nightly news programs. The
    camera hadn't prevented the crime, but its imperfect images allowed
    the police to measure the comparative heights of the child and his
    abductors. Without them, the police might have been looking for a very
    different kind of culprit from the two 11-year-old boys who were later
    convicted in the toddler's murder.

    "The Jamie Bulger case was a sea change over here," Peter Fry told me.
    Fry, who is director of Britain's CCTV User Group, a 600-member
    association of organizations including local councils and universities
    that use closed-circuit cameras, says that many people in Britain no
    longer see the technology as Big Brother but "as a benevolent father."
    You might expect Fry, in his position, to say that. But in my recent
    visits to Britain, I've rarely heard people raise objections to CCTV
    (except-- vociferously -- to the cameras set up to catch speeding
    motorists; the equipment often ends up being vandalized). And Fry
    points out that although the technology creates miles of useless
    footage, it can actually economize on police time. He described to me
    a pub brawl that ended in a knifing. Thirty people were involved, he
    said, and the police would have had to take and sift through 30
    witness statements, filtering out the effects of inebriation as they
    divined the truth from 30 differing perspectives. Instead, a half-hour
    videotape showed just who slit whose throat.

    The philosophical underpinnings for CCTV observation lie in the ideas
    of Britain's 18th-century legal theorist Jeremy Bentham. He had a sort
    of God's-eye view of moral reform, believing that if people thought
    they were being watched, they'd probably shape up. Inspired by his
    brother's effort to design a factory where large numbers of unskilled
    workers could be supervised by a skilled few, Bentham came up with the
    concept of a "panopticon" -- a prison where criminals could be watched
    without knowing exactly when, thus conveying the discomfiting
    "sentiment of an invisible omniscience." "The more constantly the
    persons to be inspected are under the eyes of the persons who should
    inspect them," wrote Bentham, "the more perfectly will the purpose of
    these establishments have been attained." Bentham's theories are
    reflected in the design of Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary,
    where prisoners were left to reflect upon their sins in cells
    radiating out from a central observation point.

    Over the past decade, London has become a kind of urban panopticon,
    though it's not clear that the constant possibility of being observed
    has led to better behavior (Britons hardly being the very model of
    modern moral rectitude). But Fry argues that CCTV indeed deters
    certain kinds of planned crime (like car theft), even if it doesn't do
    much to deter spontaneous eruptions (like the pub brawl). And it
    probably displaces some other kinds of crime (which presents its own
    moral conundrums, but I hope you won't think me un-neighborly in my
    wish that the burglars who broke into my mother's house might be
    displaced -- and choose the big house up the lane next time around).

    Americans are, comparatively speaking, camera shy. Of course, video
    surveillance is widely used in supermarkets and hotel lobbies, but
    when Washington installed cameras on the Mall in 2002, the questions
    sparked by civil liberties groups led to their use being strictly
    regulated. Following the London bombings, though, D.C. Mayor Anthony
    Williams called for more cameras in parks and commercial districts.
    Other cities, like Baltimore, have taken advantage of federal
    antiterrorism funds to increase their surveillance systems in the hope
    of combating street crime, too. But it's all done against a backdrop
    of distrust of any kind of official observation, and dispute about how
    effective the cameras really are.

    Still, British authorities have bought into the concept in a big way:
    CCTV was first used primarily in retail stores but in the '70s and
    '80s gradually moved into public spaces. In an effort to reduce
    robberies and assaults, London Underground has been using cameras for
    about three decades now. Between 1994 and 1997, 78 percent of the
    government's crime prevention budget was spent on CCTV, according to
    scholars at the University of Hull in Britain. And cameras have been
    used to monitor protests and trouble spots such as soccer games, where
    the police have used a mobile surveillance unit known as the Hoolivan
    (equipped, one can only suppose, with hoolicams), to keep an eye on
    rowdy fans and zoom in on known troublemakers.

    Even before the July attacks, CCTV had proven its use in solving
    high-profile acts of terrorism. In 1999, there was a brief reign of
    terror in London when a series of nail bombs exploded, apparently
    aimed at the city's black, south Asian and gay communities. By plowing
    through some 26,000 hours of videotape, the police were able to find
    pictures of a man carrying a bag as he approached the site of one
    bombing and leaving without it. They quickly released an image of him.
    A 22-year-old fascist sympathizer named David Copeland was soon
    identified by a co-worker and later convicted for the murder of three
    of his victims.

    Some crooks have wised up to the possibility of being caught
    red-handed, as one detective explained to me when we discussed putting
    a camera in my mother's house. He once had a lovely video view, he
    told me, of a truck pulling into a farm yard and turning round to make
    its getaway -- but the thief had covered the license plate and pulled
    a hat down over his face.

    And CCTV certainly won't deter the committed terrorist, least of all a
    suicide bomber, who's not a bit worried about being caught after the
    fact, let alone about the possibility of facing earthly justice. Take
    a closer look at the pictures the British police released of the
    London bombers. It was at 21 minutes and 54 seconds past

    7 a.m. on July 7 that camera 14 in Luton station captured murder in
    the making; before their successful suicide attacks, the four young
    bombers appear chillingly relaxed, nonchalant in the face of imminent
    death. In the July 21 shots, on the other hand, there are signs of
    confusion, perhaps even panic, in the expressions of the men whose
    plot so unexpectedly fizzled.

    Those images have put faces -- and now names -- to men who attempted
    the unthinkable. But they can't solve the ultimate mystery. What on
    earth was going on inside those men's heads? Had they been
    brainwashed, as one of their families has suggested? We won't know the
    answer to those questions unless we come up with technology that can
    read people's minds.

    Now that's really something to worry about.

    Author's e-mail : [2]sellersf at washpost.com

    Frances Stead Sellers is an assistant editor of Outlook. She grew up
    in Britain and holds dual citizenship there and in the United States.

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