Monday, August 08, 2005

Privacy, CCTV cameras and Identity cards in Britain: Is the world upside down?

Britain is the country with the largest concentration of CCTV cameras in the world. As an evidence for this, I typed in the search line of the BBC sites these words and this is a sample of what I have found:

CCTV appeal as boy hurt in fight, Fire chief calls for CCTV cameras, CCTV to monitor river enthusiasts, Cameras cutting school vandalism, CCTV may show Iraqi race attack, CCTV responsible for more arrests,'Shocking' attack caught on CCTV,Good response to CCTV bombs plea, etc...

CCTV are used everywhere, and their use is growing. What is more surprising is that nobody seems to find their use problematic at all from the point of view of privacy. And this, comes from a country, that is fighting a battle to avoid identity cards, as Euan pointed out in previous posts.

Now, the question is: what makes CCTV cameras so appealing and identity card so unbearable? After all, identity cards merely gathers a number of data about a person. In Britain, as in all western countries, data are gathered by all sorts of private and public bodies. Banks, Air Companies, Mobile providers, Internet providers gather such an enormous mass of data, that the comparison with the data gathered by identity card is laughable.

On the other hand, CCTV cameras record images of your behaviour virtually 24h a day. I say virtually as there is a growing expectation of finding CCTV cameras in every possible place. Since images are just a specific type of data, one may ask whether it is a more or less intrusive way of gathering data. My own view is that it is a very intrusive control, much more so than the identity card type of intrusion.

Some people in Britain would argue that they do not mind being watched because they have nothing to fear about their behaviour. Let them watch us, we have nothing to hide, would be the common line. I think that this reasoning is 100% wrong. The mere fact of knowing that someone may watch us at any time doing the most trivial things, like eating, drinking, chatting, even reading, should -or even, it must- frighten us. Since we live in a world that is heavily image based, it is crucial to maintain a tight control on the way our image could be used. Imagine, for example, that you're simpling walking on the street, and you happen to slip on a banana skin. Normally, such a silly thing would be a little annoying, and that's it. But, what if a TV companies decide to use this detail for a program called, say, 'the idiots of Britain', would you be so happy to have given your blank check to public authorities to record your images? The point is that images, as a form of data, can be used and abused much more easily than other types of data.

Thus, I would suggest british audience to get their priorities reversed. First, start worring about CCTV cameras, that is really scary. Once you'll have done that, you can also worry about identity cards. Possibly, identity cards are a far too big investment of public money and they don't guarantee any special outcome. But this is a wholly different matter.


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