The pace with which the use of surveillance technology has expanded in the UK since the 1990s is frequently accompanied by the claim that we are the most watched nation on earth. Public CCTV cameras in London alone now total over 7,400 according to recent figures. For critics, British citizens are the powerless victims of a 'surveillance society' reminiscent of Airstrip One in Orwell's haunting classic 1984 – and things could be about to get worse.
That Britain resembles this dystopian spectre is perpetuated by changes to traditional policing practice, a notable case of which involves the planned expansion in the use of 'drones' or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). These pilotless scaled-down aircrafts, originally conceived for military reconnaissance purposes, have been controversially developed with airstrike capabilities and deployed in war zones such as Afghanistan, and recently Waziristan.
UAVs can be controlled remotely and in many cases function fully autonomously.
Following a Freedom of Information Request earlier this yearThe Guardian
learned that a collaborative project between the British defence company BAE systems and Kent Police (the ‘South Coast Partnership’) is developing similar surveillance technologies in order to police London’s 2012 Olympics. Five other police forces are said to have taken interest in the scheme for routine purposes. Indeed, although grounded following speculation over its license status, a CCTV fitted drone was recently used in the Merseyside area
to tackle anti-social behaviour and petty criminality. It’s said that the UAVs, or ‘spy planes’ as they have been called, under development for 2012 have the ability to operate autonomously for around 15 hours at a time. Capable of transmitting data collected from around 20,000 ft they are largely silent and invisible.
Could the use of drones replace CCTV cameras as society’s routine mode of surveillance? Advocates are keen to stress the similarity between the images the two technologies collect, and emphasise the enhanced ability of UAVs to monitor activity in crowds and police borders. It’s hard to escape the sense of foreboding that accompanies the thought of pilotless machines taking high-resolution pictures from above, but as a Home Office report on the subject notes,‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are likely to become an increasingly useful tool for the police in the future.’
Notwithstanding the threat to civil liberties many believe this would pose, such an argument neglects the fact that the expansion of CCTV has not seen a proportionate reduction in crime rates. But more significant perhaps, is the transformation in the nature of policing this expansion signals. What is the future of our selves as subjects and cities as public spaces when techniques for adherence to the law are not those traditionally of civil society, but the military? And indeed, what are the implications when these military techniques become normalised as part of the processes of civil society?
Although the technology may be more advanced, this disciplinarian tendency of modern societies is well noted. Inspired by the development of prison architecture
in which prisoners are not able to see watch guards while forever conscious of the possibility of their being watched, French thinker Michel Foucault began to chart the transformation in the nature of power established with modernity. He argued that the mode of regulation salient in modern society is not repressive, but one of self
-regulation. The live possibility of always being in the authoritative gaze produces a self-policed existence, the individual both addicted to and consumed by control as described by William Boroughs.
Must public spaces be regulated by military technologies for seeking out terror suspects? Studies have shown that better lighting in urban areas can reduce crime rates. By militarising the practices by which cities are policed, questions must be raised about the nature of police protection, and the kind of public spaces we want as citizens. Is it not more effective to invest in preventative measures to reduce crime, rather than drones to regulate instances of crime from the sky? And in the case of the latter, where is the line between civil society and the state to be drawn? More information on these issues can be found at the No CCTV campaign,
and their catchline is one policy makers might attend to: ‘Better community reduces crime, technology does not’.