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Some things are just wrong

February 14, 2009

Ok, there are some things about surveillance that are arguable, some things that are good, but some things are just wrong.

The Guardian today is reporting the story of Nick Gibson who is taking over the tenancy of a pub in Islington in north London. The police have insisted that he will not receive the licence he needs to run the pub unless he installs CCTV and is prepared to hand over footage to them whenever they want. Mr Gibson complained to his Member of Parliament, Emily Thornberry (not Thornhill as The Guardian claims), but she is apparently a spineless New Labour loyalist who has no time for niceties like civil liberties. She refused to represent him on the grounds that other local residents ‘want more CCTV’.

It is one thing to want to install CCTV if you run a business. Your customers can chose whether to patronise your establishment or not. It is however, entirely another matter to be quasi-legally blackmailed into installing it by police. There is no law that mandate the installation of surveillance cameras an in fact there is no statutory basis for CCTV at all in the UK – it is something that the Lords committee report on surveillance recommended as a matter of urgency. The police are simply abusing their right to impose licensing conditions to make local policy. The installation of CCTV is not a matter of ‘common-sense’, it is an ethical judgement, and police should not be be able to override the ethical judgement of individuals by edict in this way.

This is a very worrying case, because it shows that there is a kind of cozy ‘common-sense’ authoritarianism developing in the UK. It is disturbing that despite all the research, including that of the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers, showing that CCTV has very limited utility, the default position for state officials seems to be that surveillance is a normal, even required part of everyday life.

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