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ASIS 2017

Network / IP - News

Today’s CCTV Systems: Would George Orwell approve?

TV broadcasters were even allowed to use video streams from traffic CCTV cameras in order to report on events
Orwell’s 1984 depicts a post-apocalyptic
dystopia in which camera surveillance
is used to oppress the individual
The phrase “Big Brother” has been in our vocabulary for eight decades now. Its use is linked exclusively with negative images of a surveillance state (and, of course, a bad reality television show). But would George Orwell, a non-religious democrat, be happy with the way the anti-CCTV lobby has appropriated the phrase? The fact is, Orwell would approve of many of the uses to which we currently put camera surveillance.

If you Google “CCTV” with “Big Brother,” your top hits will include Big Brother Watch, a lobbying group whose stated aim is to “expose the true scale of the surveillance state.”

The website’s latest CCTV post cites a London journalist arguing at laborious length that bailiffs shouldn’t be allowed to use automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) vehicles (“spy cars” is her phrase) and, still less, have access to the UK vehicle licensing agency’s database. Her gripe is that after she performed an illegal turn in an affluent south London suburb (caught on CCTV), penalty notices didn’t reach her new address. Her failure to pay a modest fine led to her car being impounded.

Scottish police are using video as part of a manhunt for the driver of a hired car that mounted the pavement and killed an 11-year-old girl in a working-class area of Glasgow. If CCTV evidence contributes to a successful prosecution, don’t expect Big Brother Watch to report on it anytime soon. But a middle-class freelance tabloid journalist losing use of her Volkswagen Golf for a few hours is considered news.

Many in our industry have made measured pleas for common sense from all parties in the surveillance debate and called for a broad perspective that is seldom demonstrated by the so-called watchdogs who constantly cite Orwell. There’s irony here in that one of the many reasons we all revere Orwell is his constant testing of his own attitudes and possible prejudices.

The ISIS murderer known as “Jihadi John” has “executed” Peter Kassig, bringing his total of victims to five. The FBI identified him in September, and it’s likely they used voiceprint databases, audio analytics and hand geometry, all of these being disciplines that would have received no public funding had the anti-biometric lobby held sway. And yet only a month ago, the usually even-handed American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published an article consisting almost exclusively of innuendo to the effect that voiceprint technology is likely to be misused by corporates. The technology’s potential for solving violent crime is not even mentioned, and the ACLU’s bugbear has switched from ‘Big Brother’ to ‘big business.’

Public support for CCTV in London reached a peak after the "7/7" incidents of 2005 when moving and still CCTV images of the terrorists both on the day of the attack and during an alleged “hostile reconnaissance mission” were widely publicised

Anybody setting up a Google news alert on “CCTV” will receive a daily deluge of stories that tends to split into three broad categories: “Police release CCTV images of suspect …” or “Residents/retailers/councillors call for CCTV after recent spate of …” and “Police reconstruct event with help of CCTV.” What does this tell us? It shows that CCTV is valued by both citizens and lawmakers. Orwell’s 1984 depicts a post-apocalyptic dystopia in which camera surveillance is used (among other measures) to oppress the individual.

If you haven’t read 1984 since school days, you might need reminding that it’s set in London, a city whose residents, according to one discredited claim (still trotted out regularly by Big Brother Watch), are currently caught on CCTV over 300 times a day.

Public support for CCTV in London reached a peak after the “7/7” incidents of 2005 when moving and still CCTV images of the terrorists both on the day of the attack and during an alleged “hostile reconnaissance mission” were widely publicised. The bombers were shown assembling at Luton Station and arriving at King’s Cross Station an hour later. TV broadcasters were even allowed to use video streams from traffic CCTV cameras in order to report on events.

If UBM wants to extend the educational content of the IFSEC show, they may wish to invite the advocacy groups Liberty and Big Brother Watch to debate security sector journalists and representatives from industry groups such as the BSIA, the Security Industry Authority (SIA) and the British Security Association (BSA). Crucially, residents, local councillors and members of the business community from IFSEC’s new location in the London Borough of Newham should be on the panel. Big Brother Watch may encounter difficulties in defending its very name, and neutral observers may realise that our industry is by no means self-serving. Security professionals welcome discourse with those who seek to judge us. We can think critically, are acutely aware of civil liberties, and can take justifiable pride in the rigorous manner in which we analyse and police ourselves.


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