The headline in the Independent tells it all: Britain will be first country to monitor every car journey: From 2006 Britain will be the first country where every journey by every car will be monitored.
“Using a network of cameras that can automatically read every passing number plate, the plan is to build a huge database of vehicle movements so that the police and security services can analyse any journey a driver has made over several years.
“By next March a central database installed alongside the Police National Computer in Hendon, north London, will store the details of 35 million number-plate ‘reads’ per day. These will include time, date and precise location, with camera sites monitored by global positioning satellites.”
Such tools, once built, naturally, and quite easily expand:
“Already there are plans to extend the database by increasing the storage period to five years and by linking thousands of additional cameras so that details of up to 100 million number plates can be fed each day into the central databank.”
Will the next step be to integrate in face recognition capability? Why not? And what then?
This decision in Britain is especially ironic in light of the headlines this week in the United States, which announce that the Bush administration has been illegally wiretapping unknown numbers of people and, separately, spying on peaceful protesters, all in the name of fighting terrorism. Especially important to keep in mind is the fact that Bush emphatically asserted in 2004 that no one was being wiretapped without a court order. Surveillance tools, when built, are always only going to be used within clear limits. And then…
While it may be justified, and fun, to demonize Bush and his gang, we have to remember that the Bush administration is hardly the first to use illicit means to crush opposition. Many recent articles have made connections to Watergate and other actions of the Nixon administration. But Democratic administrations have certainly engaged in their share of dirty tricks when facing opposition. The infamous Cointelpro program, the attempt to provoke Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide, and many other attacks on protestors and dissidents occurred largely during the Johnson administration.
Over a hundred years ago Lord Acton understood that the danger to liberty does not reside mainly in bad individuals, but in the power available to those in positions of authority: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This is why it is essential to put absolute limits on the tools available to those in authority. If we trust our leaders to use the tools available to them wisely, we are simply being fools. Further, if these tools are used prudently now, there is absolutely no guarantee that future leaders will continue to wield them judiciously. Some tools should never be built, and the total surveillance system being constructed in Britain is one of those.
One can only imagine what will be done with these tools once they are built. Unfortunately, the land of the Magna Carta is rapidly moving toward becoming the land in which privacy is a quaint relic of the past. While the pretense of freedom will undoubtedly remain, real freedom may soon be gone. The next step may very well be to keep tabs on the movements of every individual. GPS systems make such a totally surveillance state a likely possibility, indeed, a certainty, unless current trends are rapidly reversed. Already, such systems are being used to control prisoners. Proposals exist to use them with visitors, to make sure they don’t overstay their visas. How far is it from these uses to a society in which everyone’s location is monitored at all times? Such an outcome may seem outrageous now, but so would this Independent headline have seemed 10 years ago. The issue of the creeping, or rather galloping, total surveillance state is one of the most important ignored issues of modern times. Modern technology makes possible types of monitoring, and control, undreamed of by Orwell. And, with little discussion or opposition, these techniques are being implemented. If we don’t act now, it will soon be too late to turn the tide.
Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Institute for the Study of Violence of the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is a member of Roslindale Neighbors for Peace and Justice and founder of Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice. He maintains the Iraq Occupation and Resistance Report web page and the Psyche, Science, and Society blog.