It’s cheap, it’s foolproof and we can start to implement it today. Let’s install surveillance cameras and microphones in every room of every new home that is built. Make it a condition of planning consent. Insist on it in every refurbishment.
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It won’t just leave terrorists with no place to hide, it’ll expose criminals wherever they’re holed up or plotting. Isn’t this the logical extension of what is already happening, of what we’re allowing with barely a squeak of protest?
The latest extension of the surveillance society is street microphones that can detect a fight before it starts by noting changing speeds of speech. They’ve already been trialled in Glasgow and installed in Coventry. Apparently, they can listen to a conversation at 100 yards. Why stop there I say? Imagine what more must be possible within the home. The police could be at the door, handcuffs at the ready, before a drunken man can punch his wife or say “domestic violence”.
For lesser infringements, a speaker system could warn off would-be offenders. These, too, are already in place in some city streets. They allow the person monitoring surveillance screens to speak to unruly citizens, to warn them to cool it. Why not install the voice of reason in the kitchen or the bedroom? Look what it might have saved the actress Leslie Ash when her husband’s over-enthusiastic love-making landed her in hospital.
Cameras in the home would eradicate child abuse. Burglary, too, would be obliterated since the thief would know the police had a ringside seat. Think of the benefits. Peace would reign in every
household, the crime rate would plummet and prisons would no longer be overcrowded.
Think of the financial savings. George Osborne wouldn’t have to contemplate tax rises if he could rid the country of crime. There would also be huge savings to the NHS. Once installed, the system could be fine-tuned. Government health initiatives could be encouraged: a warning could be broadcast every time someone lights a cigarette. Meal times could be made wholesome by reminding parents to eat at a table and provide their family with five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Secret drinking would be secret no more.
I could go on. There is no limit to the degree of control the state can exert on the individual citizen – if the citizen is foolish enough to permit it. And, before you ask who would be that daft, the answer is you and I. We’re already that daft. We have grown accustomed to being photographed 300 times every day in cities. We accept CCTV despite Metropolitan Police records showing that in 2008 only one crime was solved per 1,000 cameras.
The intrusion seems harmless but unless we get a grip on it, it soon won’t be. Technology is advancing at a pace so fast that civil liberties legislation is trailing in its wake.
Coventry’s new listening devices have been tested in Glasgow without our permission. They are in public places and not in homes as I have suggested. What worries me is that the difference is one of degree, not one of principle. The microphones are being used to detect gunshots and breaking glass. They help to combat violent crime. However, they also have the capability to separate out background noise and home in on conversation. That’s disturbing because, like CCTV and number plate recognition, it is arriving into our lives as a fait accompli. People are bounced into a position of having to object when we should have been consulted in advance.
It’s not an excuse to say they are in public places. We all have private conversations in public. We tailor our degree of self-exposure according to our trust in the person we are with. What we say in a group differs to what we will say to an individual. What we would say to someone working for a surveillance firm differs again.
So how dare councils install technology that has the ability to eavesdrop on us; how dare the state permit it. What is possible should not determine what is permissible. Holland, where this technology originates, has already installed it in 12 cities, as well as in buses and trains. A spokesman for Sigard, the manufacturer, suggested police cars could be fitted with it and could then cruise city centres. I find the idea horrendous.
If this sort of incursion continues, at what point do we cease to be a free-thinking democracy and start to be citizens of a police state? That’s not an over-reaction. We are playing catch-up with technology. We didn’t need to protect ourselves from these sorts of incursions until now because they didn’t exist. Such is the speed of development that we desperately need to establish firm ground rules.
For example, successful experiments have been conducted in brain mapping. How long will it be before thoughts can be read? Do we
want to hear on the news a decade from now that thought-reading has been trialled in Edinburgh or Aberdeen without our advance knowledge and consent? It sounds outrageous but so is the installation of listening devices.
Not so long ago it would have been dismissed as Orwellian fantasy. It’s time we woke up and took action. It’s time to say back off and keep your noses out. David Cameron and Nick Clegg promised to protect civil liberties in the run up to the election. It’s time to insist that they deliver.
Of course there is public concern about crime and the threat of terrorism. If technological advances can help control them, they have a place. But that place must not cause a threat to the freedom of the individual.
Freedom is the keystone of our civilisation. We can say what we want, think what we want and enjoy a private life. Like water, we take it for granted every day. But just as water deprivation will kill our bodies, so the erosion of our freedom will shrink our spirits.
Previous generations have fought wars – both civil and international – in the cause of freedom. They chopped off a king’s head for freedom. Our history is littered with stories of self-sacrifice endured in the name of freedom.
That freedom was gained and guarded for our sakes. If we throw it away without a fight, we will be betray the generations that are gone and rob those still to come.