Is this the Big Brother Society?
By encouraging the public to monitor CCTV footage, a new website promises to turn us all into armchair snoops.
A commemorative frieze of George Orwell’s face was recently pried off a wall marking the location of Booklover’s Corner, the second-hand shop in Hampstead, London, where the author worked in the 1930s. There were no witnesses to the crime, which appears unsolvable. One journalist joked at the time that ‘one would suggest CCTV, were it not a monument to the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four’.
Jokes aside, closed-circuit television (CCTV) is often presumed to be a key instrument for resolving crimes, especially when there are no eye witnesses. Yet despite the fact that Britain is one of the most spied-upon nations in the world, with over 60,000 council-operated CCTV cameras, the growth in surveillance cameras has not led to a decrease in crime. Most of the cameras are unmanned and can therefore only be useful in identifying culprits after they’ve already committed a crime.
In order to make up for some of the shortcomings of CCTV, the entrepreneur Tony Morgan launched the website Internet Eyes. Here, any adult living in the EU can register to watch live CCTV feeds of small businesses who can’t afford full-time monitoring of their camera footage. Users become part-time crime stoppers, notifying businesses if vandalism or shoplifting is happening on their premises.
Internet Eyes, which launched in October this year, already has thousands of registered users paying a £13 annual subscription fee. If users spot something suspicious, they can alert the shop owner. Correct tip-offs earn them three points. The subscriber who collects the most points in a single month wins £1,000. In effect, Internet Eyes allows members of the public to play a virtual game of I Spy from the comfort of their own homes. Morgan has said that this is another bonus of the scheme – it allows people to intervene in crimes without fear of getting hurt.
Unsurprisingly, the initiative has caught the attention of politicians. One Tory MP praised it for ‘building a more responsible big society’, referring to David Cameron’s efforts to make members of the public take responsibility for their communities’ wellbeing and safety. This was surely music to the ears of Morgan, who wants to extend his venture to allow his army of crime-stoppers to monitor public spaces, too.
Some areas of Britain have already been subjected to listening and talking CCTVs, where camera operators can bark orders through loud speakers at people engaging in ‘anti-social behaviour’. In one scheme, messages pre-recorded by children were broadcast to misbehaving adults. Now, with Internet Eyes, we may shortly be seeing a growth in armchair busybodies, alerting authorities to ne’er-do-wells over the internet.
The Lib-Con government has promised to ‘roll back the surveillance state’, but the culture of surveillance is still going strong and the government has expressed enthusiasm over people policing their own streets and communities. Likewise, many of Internet Eyes’ users have cited ‘doing good through fighting crime’ as a main motivation for registering.
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Internet Eyes is likely to accentuate the detrimental effects that the roll-out of CCTVs has had on public space and citizens’ relations in Britain. The proliferation of CCTV cameras has helped erode normal codes of behaviour, encouraging people to feel unsafe whenever they are unmonitored. CCTVs make us less likely to help others out when they’re in trouble or to come to the aid of local shop owners being robbed or dealing with unruly customers. If there’s a camera monitored by an anonymous official or a self-described crime-stopper to do our civic duties for us, then what’s the point of getting involved?
Initiatives like Internet Eyes will also help breed suspicion and distrust, encouraging us to presume that people are up to no good and need to be policed every second of the day. Far from building social bonds, this reduces us all to policemen or criminals.
It remains to be seen if Internet Eyes proves to be a success. After all, watching livestreams from corner shops is hardly the height of excitement. The odds of halting a real-life shotgun robbery (or even catching a schoolchild nick a stick of gum) seem phenomenally low. Yet it does seem to deal with a lot of the operational shortcomings of current CCTV operations: it’s cheap and provides real-time crime alerts.
While CCTV has come under a lot of criticism for being inefficient and impractical, the real problems with the surveillance society aren’t to do with technicalities. After all, initiatives like Internet Eyes can make up for technical shortcomings. Instead, the importance of things like privacy, free public spaces, and interpersonal relationships undisturbed by busybodies need to be reasserted as CCTV cameras become more numerous and more efficient.
Rolling back the surveillance state is not simply about cutting investment in CCTVs or increasing regulation about how they’re used, as politicians have proposed. It is about challenging the culture of surveillance. A stronger case needs to be made for how CCTV imposes on public spaces, erodes trust, fragments relationships and breeds dependency on the watchful eye of authorities.
Internet Eyes and multitude of other devices observing us – from drones to talking cameras – should be switched off for good.
Patrick Hayes is a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum and one of the organisers of the Battle of Ideas festival.