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May 20, 2012 / Leo Hollis

Lockdown London

In 1791, two years after the storming of the Bastille, the Utilitarian philosopher developed the notion of the Panopticon, a prison in which the inmates were observed at all times by some unseeing eye. The design of the gaol meant that the prisoner never knew whether he was being watched or not, therefore was forced to behave himself rather than be disciplined. In effect he became both the jailer and the incaracerated. This is what is happening this summer in London, all in the name of the Olympics.

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It is not known how many units are installed in the UK but it is estimated that there are at least 500,000 in London, on average, 68.7 cameras for every 1000 people in London; it is frequently suggested that an individual going about his business in the city is caught on camera at least ‘300 times a day’. Yet it is not just in the capital: it has been calculated that the remote Shetland Islands to the north of Scotland have more CCTVs than the whole of the San Francisco Police Department. This is only going to get worse this summer

In Europe, CCTV is less popular, perhaps as some suggest because of the legacy of Fascism and stronger privacy laws. In 2004 it was calculated that thre were over 500 open street surveillance systems in London, there 15 throughout Germany, one in Norway, over 14 in former soviet Budapest, and none in Vienna or Copenhagen.

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Things changed somewhat in the aftermath of 9/11, where there was a surge in the demand for surveillance in New York. In 2006 a report by the New York Civil Liberties Union calculated that within the central districts within the city, number of CCTVs had jumped between 1998 and 2006 from 446 to 1306 in the Financial District and Tribeca; in Greenwich Village and SoHo the number has leapt from 142 to 2227; in total the number has escalated from 769 to 4468.  According to the geographer Stephen Graham the city itself has become the battleground in the War Against Terror, and surveillance has become just one of the ways the state watches the enemy within: ‘contemporary warfare takes place in supermarkets, tower blocks, subway tunnels, and industrial districts rather than open fields, jungles or deserts.’

Many of these new techniques, learned from the battlefields and Green Zones of Iraq and the on-going war between Israel and the Palestinian people, were brought to bear in the preparations for the London 2012 Olympics. In the spring months leading up to the games, the city was put on high alert, with the UK’s greatest mobilisation of troops and hardware since 1945, more than are stationed in Afghanistan at the same time, with an overall cost of  £553m. With manless drones circling in the air, an aircraft carrier in the Thames and undercover, armed FBI agents in the crowd, this could give the appearance more of a coup than a celebration. The city itself will be wired with new CCTV scanners with face recognition software. Surface to air missiles stand on the roofs of council flats near to the Olympic Village. It appears that the services will go to any lengths to promise ‘total security’.

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But even if one agrees that it is imperative that events like the Olympics should go ahead without the risk of attacks or protest, it is sobering to consider the probability that the tight security apparatus is unlikely to go away once the carnival has moved away. Events like the Games are the ideal showcase for the latest in security technology, and once on display, are rarely dismantled afterwards.

This is a reflection of a change in relationship between the authorities and the street, and the end of trust. For many, the argument that if you are not doing anything wrong then you have nothing to fear is sufficient balm to turn a blind eye to the increased technological intervention of the street by the authorities. Only thieves and terrorists need to be nervous. The evidence, however, is not so conclusive. In 2005 a report from the University of Leicester showed that CCTV surveillance had little impact on rates of crime, nor on the fear of crime. In the case of the neo-nazi bomber David Copeland who waged a 13 day campaign in 1999, there was so much surveillance around the first bomb outside a supermarket in Brixton, that it took 50 detectives over 20 days to go through all the visual evidence; by the time they has finished Copeland had already been arrested. In the end he was convicted on forensic evidence found in his bag.

In addition, there is a very high instance of abuse of cameras, with numerous examples of operatives using cameras to stalk women, voyeurism, conduct illegal invasions of privacy. In particular, criminologist Clive Norris found that black youths in the UK were ‘between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half times more likely to be surveiled than one would expect from their presence in the population.’  

But does this change the way people behave?  In the 2004 report from the University of Leicester that was where was inconclusive proof that CCTV make people feel safer. But how does it change the issue of trust? How do we feel being silently watched by the authorities all the time?

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