Not so long ago, a far-right government prone to arresting people for acts such as holding up the wrong sign at a protest, using an all-encompassing biometric database and AI cameras to monitor our every move would have sounded like a rather overdone dystopian sci-fi concept. More fool us for letting successive British governments impose exactly that.
The Tories have suggested that they want to bring facial recognition cameras to town centres across Britain on a permanent basis, citing their effectiveness in catching criminals. Alongside this “everyone’s a suspect” model, they’re also planning to throw in facial recognition databasing using passport photos. It’s a machine learning-backed power at an everyday level that not even the writers of surveillance nightmare films like Enemy of The State or The Bourne Identity were fully envisioning when they warned about its potential for misuse.
And it’s the thick end of a wedge that the Tories, and Blair before them, have been driving into our civil liberties for some time.
It’s understandable why they think now is the time for this latest wheeze. In the face of persistently high inflation, driven largely by profiteering companies in the wake of the pandemic, there has been a predictable uptick in shoplifting and desperate behaviour, making the small business types who make up much of what passes for conservative civil society anxious. Primed, in fact, to temporarily forget their own touchstones about an individual’s personal freedoms and the importance of a small State in favour of that most tawdry of authoritarian excuses, “if you’ve got nothing to hide.”
The police began working up to this in the mid-2010s, notably when they tried out facial recognition at the Notting Hill Carnival – a revealing choice in itself, the result of which, backed by many other examples, was a slew of false positives when filming racialised people. Of course, this would not deter the average senior copper for very long or at all. Later that year, they managed to get the use of facial recognition tech defined as an “operational decision,” undermining oversight of how they planned to expand it.
The next two years saw tests and an explosion of the system’s use by major retailers – a completely unregulated process which has seen vast swathes of the population filmed, their faces scanned and added to private databases without so much as a how’d you do. Covid, quite ironically given the wild conspiracy-mongering that went on about it being a tool of control, actively slowed that process by encouraging everyone to mask up. But from 2021 onwards, things got back on track, complete with “sinister” official guidance and the breaking of human rights laws.
And now it seems to be destined for our high streets at an as-yet-unannounced cost ahead of one of the tightest spending squeezes in living memory. Because money can always be found for surveillance and punishment, rarely for aid. Not that it’s particularly good, of course [pdf], for stopping crime, as the rise in shoplifting itself has shown, and of course, people can avoid the areas covered, with only a surprise use likely to catch people who know they’re being sought. But CCTV is sometimes handy for displacing criminality elsewhere and very good, potentially, for creating an atmosphere of suspicion and fear.
With the laudable exception of campaigns like Big Brother Watch, this has all largely slid under the radar. An astonishing thing, really, given certain quarters’ near constant blabbing about government attacks on our freedoms. Ulez cameras may get cut down and universities mandated to platform bigots, but the quite specific filming and cataloguing of our everyday lives by faceless bureaucrats for reasons unknown has inspired no such consequences.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising. We live in a polity which looks the other way on forced labour laws for emergency workers and transport drivers, multi-year sentences for nonviolent protest and jail threats for placards. One in which everyday monitoring through our computers and phones is simply a part of life. Our tin foil types and hard-right “defend free speech to the death” mob habitually chase shadows while actual rights and privacies are thrown on a bonfire. An amazing level of public trust is placed in a force that has time and again disgraced itself and officers who have habitually misused their powers on the grounds they’re somehow not part of the elusive Deep State’s efforts to bring us heel, unlike such grave threats as urban planning, or the “woke mind virus.”
You would think the endless Hollywood movies we all grew up with warning about the possibilities for an authoritarian State to misuse such power might have sunk in just a little more. Even if the current government and police force were trustworthy – and they manifestly are not – once the infrastructure for repression is in place, it’s there to be used. No one buys a car expecting only to walk. Facial recognition as a tool for identifying and punishing dissent is an intrinsic part of its function. It is not a possibility but a certainty, based on our own history, that individuals will take advantage to stalk and bully using this permanent nationwide panopticon because that possibility is there. It’s happened already using far less powerful tools.
Discussions on the State’s rush to catalogue and judge every aspect of our private lives, away from our oversight and usually without even our knowledge, are woefully lacking in a media that, for many reasons, hasn’t the spine to challenge such movements. The arrogant and flat-out inaccurate conceit that “it can’t happen here” blocks serious discussion. Instead, we get endless copaganda, overblown and uncredible dramas about surveillance used to stop terrorism, all designed to emphasise the dubious benefits of this downwards-pressing machine being constructed around us.
It’s yet another shameful indictment of our dulled journalistic and media scene that this is the case and of our laughably “freedom-loving” society that the announcement of each new repressive measure is not met immediately and categorically with forceful resistance. The last such campaign to curb the State’s controlling tendencies was the laudable campaign against compulsory ID cards, which succeeded in blocking their use in the early 2010s. It’s a campaign that encompassed libertarian ideals not just from the left but from the right as well, with even senior Tories like David Davis, just for once, remembering a little thing called principle (a shame it did not stick).
Resigning over the issue of rising surveillance in 2008, he raged eloquently against “the insidious, surreptitious and relentless erosion of fundamental British freedoms,” adding: “We will have, shortly, the most intrusive identity card system in the world; a CCTV camera for every 14 citizens; [and] a DNA database bigger than any dictatorship has, with thousands of innocent children and millions of innocent citizens on it.”
The first threat he helped temporarily defeat. The others he helped implement, along with the rest of his “small State” Tory coterie, first using terrorism as an excuse and now with mere petty crime. How cheaply our supposedly fundamental rights are sold today, with a vague wave of the hand and a shrug from those who absolutely do know better but choose comfortable acceptance rather than the bother of a scrap with Britain’s vastly overpowered, arrogant and poorly-reined security services.
Surveillance is rapidly becoming sousveillance – the tracking of everyone, all the time, by both official and everyday technologies, from police cameras (mounted and body) to private CCTV to our own phones. We do not live in a fully free democracy, and rights we had previously enjoyed have been stripped away in recent years using excuses as varied as “the economy” and “avoiding public nuisance.”
For a long time, we have been warned that we are sleepwalking our way into an invasive surveillance state. Well, we’re here now, at the end of the pier, with our collective foot out over the edge. We no longer have the room to keep dreaming.
~ Rob Ray