Queen Defender of the faith: What is with Big Brother Everywhere

Thursday, September 1, 2011

What is with Big Brother Everywhere


Good morning! I'm wading into an emerging debate over closed circuit security cameras (often called CCTV) in public since the local RCMP intend to try some out.

Different view

I understand the concerns of those who dislike the cameras. They're intrusive to a degree and appear to take society a step closer to Orwell's Big Brother. Yet, they don't bother me as much as other intrusions into our privacy such as plans by the federal government to allow tracking people's Internet comings and goings without a warrant. That targeted surveillance is beyond the pale and will probably be struck down by the Supreme Court eventually. Unfortunately, governments can't always be trusted to respect our rights. And rights are crucial, as I noted in a column just last week.

Cameras view

Why am I less bothered by CCTV cameras? One reason is my experience in London, UK, the most wired city in the world for such cameras. Figures on their numbers and effectiveness vary, but the latest study, as reported by The Mail Online on March 3, indicates there are 1.85 million CCTV cameras in the UK, about one for every 32 people. That figure is roughly half of earlier estimates based on less reliable counting methodology. As well, the vast majority of those cameras are privately owned inside stores or watching the grounds and entryways of factories, apartment complexes and the like. In the Cheshire area where a thorough actual count of cameras was done, only 504 CCTV cameras out of 12,333 were publicly owned. That's a mere 4.08 per cent. Britons may be watched a lot, but it isn't by Big Brother/government most of the time!

More numbers

It is commonly said that the average citizen in the UK is caught on CCTV cameras 300 times a day, but that has been debunked. It was a number used in a fictional 'tour' of CCTV hotspots. The real number is more like 70 times a day. That's still a lot, but it wouldn't surprise me if many Monctonians are captured at least 20 times a day - every ATM, most convenience and retail stores, banks, gas stations, at least some Tim Hortons drive-throughs, hospitals, casinos and many workplaces have cameras. It wouldn't be hard to get up to 20 if you're out and about. And nobody has been complaining. Nor do most people in the UK.

To consider. . .

One reason is they provide a certain feeling of security, albeit sometimes false. The London Underground (subway) is loaded with CCTV cameras since the terror bombings on a train and bus. And unlike most, these are monitored live. When zipping through deep tunnels at high speed in an enclosed train, knowing this occurs in a high risk terror target area is comforting.

Assaults have occurred in full view of CCTV cameras. Some thugs and crooks just don't care. But that leads to a second reason: the cameras often work as intended. If a crime does occur on camera, the police usually get high quality photos of the perpetrators. The cameras aid more in solving crime than in preventing it, and their evidence helps get convictions. The same goes for private store cameras, which help cut down on shoplifting and can provide the evidence when it is needed. It's hardly frightening!

The best reason

The main reason I'm not very concerned, though, is this: if there is no central monitoring agency, there is no Big Brother. These are closed circuits, not broadcast, not linked. There are no warehouses full of bleary-eyed government spies watching what 99.99 per cent of the time is the most boring TV imaginable. Most of the CCTV cameras are not even watched, being checked only if a crime occurs in its vicinity. Nor are the images saved a long time. And nobody knows who all those faces are. It'd be a massive chore to single out one person and try to follow them through a day minute by minute. For what? If a serious crime suspect is arrested, such a chore might become worthwhile. Otherwise, privacy and safety from Big Brother is virtually guaranteed by the sheer amount of data. It's all just background noise. Needles in haystacks are only likely to be found after something serious has occurred. Fishing is futile.

When it comes to infringing privacy - when in public, privacy about where you are and what you are visibly doing disappears in any event - CCTV cameras strike me as a truly minor concern.

The last word

Here is novelist Sara Paretsky with a pertinent observation:

"People have less privacy and are crammed together in cities, but in the wide open spaces they secretly keep tabs on each other a lot more."

* Norbert Cunningham is a retired editorial page editor of the Times & Transcript. His column appears on this page daily.

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