[Paleopsych] WP: Grin and Bear It
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Thu Aug 4 01:34:48 UTC 2005
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 : 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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