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In the USA, Big Brother is listening…

July 21, 2009

Well, according to the Baltimore Sun, the Maryland Transit Authority will be listening if it implements a proposal for recording all conversations between passengers and employees on its buses. This is not the first attempt to introduce audio surveillance of the public. In 2006, in the Netherlands, a microphone system attached to existing CCTV cameras was introduced to supposedly prevent fights by detecting distinctive vocal sounds.

Now, there may well be problems with aggressive or abusive passengers in Maryland (although I’ve also encountered enough abusive drivers in my time!) but that does not mean that any kind of action is justified in the name of preventing or discouraging this. This, as in the Netherlands situation, is a problem of incivility (or ‘respect’ to use Tony Blair’s favourite policy word) but civility develops between people and cannot be imposed by authority or surveillance. What you get by going down this road, if indeed the strategy ‘works’ at all is simply a society of resentful, distrustful, quietude where civility is simply a set of superficial Pavlovian responses not genuinely felt values that people work to create and would want to defend. Problems of incivility are hardly going to he solved by trying to create an even more managed, automated and, fundamentally, desocialised and uncivil society. As the UK’s leading CCTV researcher, Clive Norris, remarked about the UK’s ‘shouting cameras’, introduced as part of the Blair’s ‘Respect Zones’, it is hard to imagine anything much more disrespectful of the public.

What’s particularly interesting in this story too is the way in which one form of surveillance can be used to justify another, producing an internal and self-replicating logic. The thinking is that as buses already have video cameras, then this is just the same thing, right? Stick a notice up saying you’re being recorded and all legal bases are covered. Well, no, I don’t think so. Let’s explore this further. I frequently record conversations that I have. Shocked? Actually, it’s part of my job as a researcher. I interview people and I record the interviews, but I do so with the full consent of the person being interviewed and if they do not want to be recorded, I don’t record them. However, there appears to be no room for consent around mass surveillance at all. It’s becoming clear that the (lack of) regulation of CCTV has set a dangerous precedent here, with consent being regarded as ‘impractical.’ It is really not enough in any accountable system of democracy to assume that the state can assume consent for surveillance measure on the grounds that to seek specific consent would be too hard. And in any case, the ‘acceptance’ of CCTV – even if one believes that the public does indeed ‘accept’ it rather than simply feel a sense of profound disempowerment with regard to video surveillance – does not mean that ‘anything goes’ as far as surveillance is concerned. An already dubious implied consent to one form of monitoring is not the same as consent to all monitoring. And of course, even if you did have some collective majoritarian consent, what does that imply for those in the minority? We already know that surveillance is targeted against minorities, so how can even a standard democratic procedure protect people here? Of course, this is what constitutional protections are for, and in particular in this case, the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution but the MTA appears to think that the precedent of CCTV means that this does not apply. Round and round we go.

This, in the end, is all about organisational risk management and simply treats the public as sources of risk and as potential offenders, not people with rights, and indeed people who either are generally or, given the respect and space they deserve, would be, good. But risk-thinking seems to override even those things we are used to seeing as foundational of our societies.

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