"You, in the black jumper. Put that traffic cone back where you found it."
A reasonable statement. But slightly unnerving if spoken from the heavens at a great volume. Just as John Reid would like it.
"Talking CCTV" - a system allowing control room operators to speak directly to those being watched - is the new black, the must have for the latest season of surveillance. Making its way to a council near you.
The system, Reid says, is a sensible means of dispelling such antisocial behaviour as littering, gangs congregating and drunk and disorderly behaviour. In his textbook case - an example he cites from the talking eye's trial run in Middlesbrough - a yob on an isolated street drops a chip packet on the floor.
"Warning," a voice booms out. "You are being monitored by CCTV. Pick up the chip packet."
The yob looks around, confused and embarrassed.
"Put it in the bin behind you."
He duly does so, then scuttles off.
In this circumstance, the use of technology seems rational. It is, after all, nothing more than a simplification of the process CCTV necessarily implies anywhere: operator sees improper act - alerts security personnel - security personnel intervene. The middle-man is cut out. This system is not uncommon on private property. So why then does Reid need to explicitly state that the new technology is "not Big Brother gone mad"?
Firstly, because of the intrinsic odiousness of an omniscient voice barking orders. However much Reid might crow 1984-like about only criminals having anything to hide, the idea that we are not only being watched constantly, but also liable to be rebuked, is a discomforting one. Consider:
You are walking down the street alongside somebody who, unbeknownst to you, has dropped a crisp packet on the floor.
"Warning! You..." rings out.
Quite apart from the initial shock, the more empathetic of us would probably feel the same sort of shame-by-proxy that causes us to turn our heads when we see a couple fighting in a restaurant. It's not guilt-by-association, but it's something like that. And it doesn't feel good.
This is particularly pertinent given the sonic limitations of the technology. While modern CCTV cameras frequently possess powerful optical zooms, allowing operators to see things happening some way from the camera, sound does not zoom. It booms. Or whispers, as the case may be. Talking CCTV voices will necessarily either not be audible more than a few metres away, making the technology impractical in many circumstances, or will have to operate at substantially higher volumes than those for which London street preachers have been given UK's ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Ordinances). Reid's stated desire to ‘shame yobs' into behaving themselves suggests the latter is more likely.
I write this article sitting in an office block alongside a moderately busy street. Litter exists. Not a lot, but it's there. I barely notice it now; I notice it only slightly more while walking home. Occasionally people will yell on the street below. This I will notice. It disturbs me. And little litter lords booming out of loudspeakers? Chances are fairly good it would vex me far more than a mountain of Big Mac boxes. Some might suggest it perilously close to blasting a bug with a bazooka.
Intuitively, it seems thoroughly implausible that most of the populus of Middlesbrough City Centre were more disturbed by Big Mac box than the voice. Indeed, perhaps this is why no proper study was performed during the ‘trial' (or at the very least, if such has, the Home Office has not released it to the public). Though no justification for littering, cleaners do exist, whose job it is to remove litter from the ground. But what of aural litter, or noise pollution, as British police describe it when made by rowdy teenagers rather than their colleagues?
To John Reid and his ilk, there are just two people in the game of law and order: Nigel Yob, with his empty crisp packet, and law-abiding Harry Citizen, glad to see an eyesore eradicated and a wrong 'un receiving come-uppance. There is also an ideally all-seeing State whose job it is to make life nasty for Nigel and happy for Harry. To the rest of us, the situation is at best more complicated.
The "State" is in fact not a deux ex machina, but rather another person: a faceless one in a control room with the power to publicly embarrass who and when it will. The naming and shaming of innocent people through human error will inevitably result, as newspapers report it having done in the trial scheme. Studies also suggest that where individuals have the capacity to exercise power without face-to-face confrontation, they will do so as much as possible, rather than optimally; this is another troubling consideration.
It might seem strange that a debate about a technology with at least a couple of obvious practical uses should stall for so long on fag butts and fast-food packaging, but it is precisely this over-exercise of power that is to blame. Talking CCTV is itself not ipso facto a threat to civil liberties. It has, after all, been quite legitimately used for a decade if not more on private-spaces. An intruder hops over a fence into a warehouse, and a CCTV operator yells at him not to... no problem at all there. Or at least, this security measure consistently failed to even be in danger of being in danger of registering on the libertarian radar.
Had Reid argued that the technology should be employed in, say, places of high pedestrial congestion - for crowd control in case of emergency - the civil liberties brigade would no doubt have reacted with suspicion. Despite the obvious practical value the technology might have here (and, as noted, has in other contexts), they would have suggested that it would end up primarily being used for draconian micromanagement, and common sense be damned. And, as we can see from the slant of the proposals the Home Secretary has opted for, they would have been largely right.
Under Reid's scheme, while Nigel Yob may be dealt with, the result is not necessarily a street littered with good behaviour, but rather one cluttered by the voices of bossy bureaucrats yelling orders. Without prejudging the scheme, one can only hope, with UK Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, that at some point its merits are properly and publicly debated, and that we do not "sleepwalk into a surveillance society" while being shouted to sleep.