Posts Tagged ‘surveillance’


So, the Derbyshire police reveal in dramatic fashion what I’ve suspected for a while. The cops have put surveillance tech into the air via the ubiquitous drone. It’s less expensive than a chopper but it can still read a car number plate or spot a person from miles out. It might even be able to read your face. And when the cops read a car number plate of course, they know who you are and where you live. The bad guys should look out then, except the cameras aren’t always used for catching the bad-guys.

I’ve been critical of people resisting this “lockdown” (hate that word), exasperated when I see people taking to the hills en-mass when we’re told to stay at home, except for “essential” journeys. But it has never been made clear what is and is not an essential journey. And now to see this tech unleashed on sparse numbers of non-criminal members of the public in order to “shame” them for taking a walk, well,.. it’s pulled me up short. More, it will be one of my abiding memories of this crisis, along with others that are starting to leave a bad taste, like how only the rich and famous are able to get a Covid-19 test. And all the while the usual sycophantic organs of the fourth estate are drumming up the Dunkirk spirit, assuring us we’re all in this together when we’re clearly not.

Freedom in the hills has always been a fundamental necessity for many. A journey to the hills might therefore be interpreted by such folk as essential for one’s sanity. Me too.  And we’re confused. Many of us are still expected to travel to work when we’d rather not, given the risk to which it exposes our selves and our families. But employers are thinking about longer term business viability and profits. That’s another interpretation of what’s essential. What’s the difference here?

So,.. the Derbyshire police shame members of the public for taking a walk away from home. But it didn’t look to me like they were risking increasing the spread of this contagion very much. They might have fallen, yes. They might have crashed their cars and needed the emergency services, tying up already overstretched resources. I get that. But something doesn’t feel right here. This feels like a distraction from other issues.

The real risks are what our health workers are exposed to daily on account of the shocking inadequacy of their protective equipment, also commuters being forced to share public transport, still travelling to jobs that employers are allowed to interpret as essential. Essential for whom? Where are the police drones shaming the slashed NHS budgets? Where are the police drones shaming employers for making people go to work, when they could and should be working from home?

If the Derbyshire cops have this technology, all the constabularies have it, and they’ve been trialling it for years. But its deployment in the midst of this crisis is both crass and high-handed, and it exposes far more than was intended. Yes, it might scare people off the hills for fear of that sinister eye in the sky, scare them back to their homes, but it also tells me we should be very careful of our freedoms in the future. We should beware allowing others to define, in the longer term, what is and is not a necessary action. Near martial measures such as these are quickly imposed and accepted by the public as necessary for our protection, but how quickly will they be eased?

When, in the coming weeks, the death toll from coronavirus escalates, be careful of who gets the blame. Yes, we should all be exercising close to home now, not driving out to the hills like we used to do. But the height of the death-curve will not be the result of that handful of walkers in Derbyshire interpreting their own essential needs as they have been left to do. Nor will it be the occasional lovers gone out to watch the sunset or post Instagram selfies. It’ll be the result of millions forced to work and commute in the name of profit, and our health workers having to improvise their own protective gear from bin bags.

I shall bear this period of isolation as best I can. I will stay at home, because I understand it’s necessary. But I’m not stupid either, and I know a curve ball when I see it.

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cctvI arrived home last night to find among my usual slew of junk-mail a penalty notice (fine) for driving through the Thames Dartford Thurrock crossing without paying the toll. This was a surprise because I live 240 miles away from the crossing, and at the time of the alleged offence I was having my tea, my car basking innocently in the early evening sunshine on the driveway at home. But can I prove it? I don’t know – can you prove what you were doing, say, a week last Saturday? Well, if you own a car, and even if you’ve never heard of the Dartford Thurrock crossing, one day, and quite randomly, you may have to.

It was a case of mistaken identity. The penalty notice had a picture taken by the spy cameras on the crossing showing a Vauxhall Vectra as the miscreant, its number plate very similar to mine – just one letter different. However, the software that reads these number plates was unable to make out the plate accurately and came up with mine instead. I do not drive a Vauxhall Vectra. I drive a Vauxhall Astra, which, to a blind man on a galloping horse will appear similar, but they’re different enough for most normally sighted people to be able to tell them apart. That a computer system could make such an error is not entirely surprising, but it is worrying they now have the power to send out automatic fines to anyone in the driver-vehicle database, which, if you live in the UK and own a car, means YOU!

So, a simple error, simply rectified? Well, I rang the help-line number to point out the mistake to be told somewhat coolly the vehicle in the picture was clearly mine – sir – but that I could “make representation” if I wished, using the enclosed form, and have a good evening sir.

Oh dear! It was worse than I thought!

The charge for using the crossing is currently £2.50. In recognition of the fact I may be unfamiliar with the payment system, I have been generously allowed 14 days to cough up the fee, otherwise I will be stung for a punitive £72.50. Well, it’s true, I’m not at all familiar with the charge scheme on the Dartford-Thurrock crossing, living as I do at the other end of England. But, here’s the question: since it’s only £2.50, should I pay and be done with it in order to avoid further stress and aggravation, and the threat of the £72.50 fine? I can even pay online – it’s very easy, much easier than the hassle and stress of making a “representation,” and the whole thing possibly dragging on for months.

What would you do?

Of course, to pay would be admitting guilt. It would be to admit it was me driving that Vauxhall Vectra, when it clearly was not. It would be to accept that the penalty notice is justified, when clearly it is not. Also, if a number plate and vehicle model can be so easily mistaken by the spy cameras, then it’s likely other people beside me have been falsely accused of dodging this toll as well and we must protest our innocence, and protest it doggedly. If a computer is incapable of telling the difference between a C and G, or a Y and a V, or a O and 0, it’s only funny if that computer is not handing fines on the basis of its incompetence.

So, I sat down and ploughed through the small print which described the procedure for “making representation”. Among the various categories of representation I was allowed, I could find only one which vaguely applied – this being “compelling circumstances”, or some such wording. The category of “computer error”, I noted, was absent from the form entirely, so I claimed instead the “compelling circumstance” of “computer error”.

I posted the form, at the expense of a 63p stamp – already 25% of the cost of the toll – and now await developments. Of course my hope is that the money collectors of the Dartford Thurrock crossing will employ a person with a magnifying glass to look a little closer at the photograph and agree with me that it was clearly not my vehicle sir.

But the thing is this, from a broader perspective, quite out of the blue, surveillance technology is now fingering us at a place and time entirely of its own artificially intelligent choosing, and the assumption will be our guilt first – already printed and delivered by the Royal Mail. The technology is clearly dodgy, the inteliigence doubtful, but the machine is never-the-less trusted enough to bully itself unhindered into the foreground of our private lives, demanding money from us with a certain menace – pay us the £2.50 NOW or we’ll be after you for £72.50 later on. DO NOT IGNORE THIS NOTICE.

You will then have to make a grovelling representation, explaining your innocence, when no explanation should be necessary. The Dartford Thurrock crossing is a vital link across the Thames Estuary, and a marvel of civil engineering. It handles a staggering volume of traffic every day and is a thing we might ordinarily be proud of as a nation, but regrettably it is also now part of a system that randomly generates fines and threatening letters, and sends them willy nilly to all parts of the country. If you drive a car and your number plate is similar to one driving past the not so eagle eye of the toll gate camera right now, it could be you getting the penalty notice next.

I hope the driver of that Vauxhall Vectra never robs a bank, or I’m in serious trouble.

Let’s be careful out there!

[Post Script Nov ’15]

It took about six weeks but a letter did eventually come back to inform me I had been successful in my representation and that no further action would be taken against me. The Secretary of State however, reserved the right to withdraw his/her munificence at any time, though under what circumstances he/she might be inclined to do so, the letter did not say. I presume it’s still a possibility my vehicle was on the Dartford Thurrock crossing after all.

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you are being watchedIn George Orwell’s famously dystopic novel, 1984, we find the hero, Winston, living in a society where everyone must conform to a set of essentially inhuman values, their obedience monitored by an all-pervasive surveillance machinery. Failure to conform to the “collective message” results in corrective torture, or death.

Winston is disturbed to find himself subject to the repeated scrutiny of a mysterious young woman. Such is the endemic paranoia of this society, Winston jumps to the only reasonable conclusion: he’s in trouble, and the woman, Julia, is an agent of the state, trying to catch him out.

In fact, Julia is simply in love with him.

With the misunderstanding cleared up, Winston and Julia begin an affair, but in being together, and in loving one another, they neglect their overriding love of “Big Brother”. The story then unfolds in a compellingly unpleasant way, both Winston and Julia being arrested, their humanity stripped from them, their love broken by corrective torture, and their love for big brother restored to its primacy.

There’s a lot in 1984, but one of the messages for me was the danger of relying upon society alone in defining one’s personal values – that obedience to the law, without also a sense of our personal responsibility towards each other as compassionate human beings, is indeed the road to a dystopic future. It’s this sense of compassion that must come first, and only when it’s failed, does the law provide a fallback and prevent us from sliding into anarchy.

But societies are not imposed upon us by aliens from outer space. They are conceived of by people like you and me, each of us doing the things we think are right at the time. And for this reason it’s important we’re never afraid of what we think or say or do, for then we end up saying or thinking or doing only those things we imagine we’re permitted to say or think or do. And suddenly you have a world in which both the individual and society meet on terms that are mutually delusional. Again, that’s the road to a dystopic future. It need not be imposed, it can happen as the result of a misunderstanding.

I’ve written before about the plethora of surveillance cameras in our towns and cities. When you see them, you can’t help but think of the visiphones of 1984. The effect of both overt and covert surveillance is insidious – not simply on account of the data we imagine might or might not be accumulating on our every move, but because the Cyclops machines make us think differently about ourselves, about the world, and our place in it.

I came to this conclusion when I realised surveillance isn’t restricted to our urban areas. I was out walking in the countryside and came upon this rather striking “You Are Being Watched” notice pinned to a telegraph pole. It was next to a meadow that has lain fallow for years. Its purpose eluded me. There was another, further on, pinned to a gate.

Was this a warning to would be farm-thieves who might be thinking of making off with combine harvesters and tractors? Or might it have been a warning to keep to the path, to keep out of the field? I’m not sure. The warning was ambiguous, and one was tempted to fill in the gaps, to imagine all sorts of creepy scenarios. Who was watching? And why were they watching me? Were there tiny cameras hidden in the trees? Was there a spotter drone circling overhead? I rather doubted it. But the impression given was that I’d better behave myself, or something bad would happen. My son was even nervous about me taking a photograph of the sign in case I was seen on that secret camera and an armed response unit suddenly dropped from the sky – because I was behaving suspiciously, and lacked due respect for “the message”.

We imagine this massive machine with a million eyes, like the visiphones of 1984. But it’s not real. As well as instilling an irrational guilt into the general population, it does something else, much worse – it robs us of our self reliance, it makes us abdicate responsibility for what goes on in society to this mysterious “authority” with its network of all-seeing visiphone eyes. But just because there’s a camera looking at you, it doesn’t mean there’s anyone at the other end scrutinising the data coming out of it. I might have stepped back into the path of a passing tractor being driven off at speed by farm thieves, been knocked to the ground and left there bleeding. But it’s very unlikely the incident would have been captured in real-time, and an ambulance dispatched to my aid by alarmed “security officials”. The images might have been available for inspection at some point in an effort to identify the miscreant, but for now I’m lying in the road and thinking to myself if someone’s really watching, then why aren’t they helping me?

The message of surveillance is you’re being watched. Sure. But so what? Don’t let it poison you. Don’t let it get to the stage where, like poor Winston, the next time you see a person watching you, your assumption is that you’re about to be carried away in the middle of the night to your personal room 101. That person might just be in love with you, and it would be a shame if your paranoia had you passing up on such a wonderful opportunity to express your humanity.


Let’s not forget to love one another first, and never mind Big Brother.

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A sunny afternoon. Southport on the Lancashire coast. You park your car on the seafront, you walk along the pier with your family, savouring the salty breeze and then you sit down at Silcocks for a chip barm. It’s lovely. Bikers come here from all over the county. They line their polished machines up for all to see and admire. There’s a kiddies roundabout, the Cocks and Hens. It’s late April and we’re trying to shrug off the winter months. There’s a pause in conversation, a moment of introspection, and I find myself playing the game of spot the security camera.

It doesn’t take me long. I’m getting pretty good at it. Good enough to realise that in any urban setting, no matter where you are you can rest assured, you’re on CCTV.

I’m on this one at the minute. It’s watching me, as I’m taking a photograph of it. It’s the equivalent of two fingers, though I’ll probably come a cropper one day and have some explaining to do. I particularly like the way the Union Jack has wound itself around the pole, rendered itself only half the flag it used to be,…

Still, it’s nice to feel so,… protected.

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