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Letters From London

Big Brother Nation

The London bombers were identified by the city’s vast camera system, recording footage of them humping their deadly backpacks, so did Orwell get it wrong? Are these spies more helpful than sinister? Our man in the U.K. explains how the capital keeps tabs on its citizens.


Driving south from the City of London we pass below an unusual addition to the capital’s myriad signage and camera systems. A slender pole is being installed at the side of the road, bending over at 90 degrees to create a gantry above the passing cars. Yet unlike the traffic control cameras that beam images back to city planners and broadcasters, or the cameras that catch out traffic light jumpers and those who loiter in the forbidden zone at junctions, or the bus lane cameras that sit atop slender poles to slap fines on those who obstruct clear runs for London’s bus system, or even the chunky congestion charge cameras with their triple-camera license-plate-reading system, this looks different. Five or six black cameras, all different, perched on the bar like crows on a fence. Perhaps it’s some newfangled security measure, some post-bomb salve that’ll keep the jittery financial district from packing up and fleeing to Frankfurt or New York. After all, lightning never strikes twice, does it? Except in London, where casual terrorism appears to be spread via ad hoc franchises, spare-bedroom bomb factories that have more in common with viral marketing and flash mobs than any coherent ideology. But I don’t say this. I don’t really know. The latest development is just another piece of over-inquisitive street furniture. Besides, in an instant we’ve driven under the creepy gantry and then it’s out of sight and forgotten.


It’s easy to casually blank out London’s silent, blinking eyes. Long before al Qaeda had even registered on the list of global bogeymen, the City was given its very own “ring of steel.” A response to Irish Republican terrorism (which culminated in three major bomb attacks on the City’s focal points, in 1992, 1993, and 1996—see “Raising the Game”), the ring’s physical presence was little more than a series of semi-permanent roadblocks, an inconvenient slalom for delivery drivers and of little or no consequence to the many millions of Londoners who would sooner swim in the Thames than bother driving into the City of London. There’s nothing there, for a start, save for offices and office workers, now neatly corralled by a deliberately frustrating system of artificial dead ends blocking off existing through routes by bollards or raised sections of sidewalk. The ring’s other legacy was more or less invisible—the widespread introduction of cameras to monitor major arteries in and out of the city.

At the time, it seemed that no one kicked up much of a fuss. There were occasional rumblings about police states and the proliferation of cameras, but retrospectively it was an age awash with innocence, pre-internet, post-the anniversary of Orwell’s 1984, even before television reality shows had brought Orwell’s terms back up to date and into popular usage. It was also before the speed camera catapulted itself into the public consciousness, a very visible symbol of the imposition of authority on movement that caused political divisions on all levels. But speed cameras and closed circuit television cameras have very different agendas. The former lurk in dips and curves, waiting to pounce with two discrete flashes that briefly illuminate your guilt, leaving you nervously waiting for the electronic summons to come through the letterbox. It doesn’t always, of course—many cameras are dummies, set to flash but not to record; the sheer volume of casual speeding would probably overload the system. But the mental effort devoted to spotting these yellow-clad devices is in inverse proportion to their frequency. Conversely, in a city literally riddled with CCTV cameras, few people realize how much of the time they’re being watched. It’s all a question of perception. The motorist’s near-constant guilty vigilance is due to the very real fear of getting ticketed. Yet who watches the CCTV? Who exactly is there, monitoring the city, a fly’s eye view fragmented by a thousand screens? The answer is probably no one, but you can be sure that someone is working on it.


Where, I wonder, have I ended up today? How many loops of tape and banks of servers have recorded my image and stored it away? Under U.K. law—specifically our Data Protection Act, those who use CCTV systems don’t have the right to keep the imagery indefinitely—after a certain period it must be erased. (Although strangely, there are different periods for different applications. Pub landlords and bar owners can only keep the tapes for a week, whereas town-center camera imagery must be erased after 31 days.) Then I think of all the videotapes I have that I’ve never bothered to watch, let alone wipe, and wonder how many warehouses are sitting full of played-out VHS tapes, stacked up, never watched, full of flickering moments of late 20th-century life. Imagine the sheer volume of anthropological data, all squirreled away, illegal to even retain.


These days much of the data is digitized—there are no longer banks of churning VCRs, their tapes so stretched and worn that everyone gets a cloak, welcome or otherwise, or grainy analogue anonymity, a snowy disguise that has to be processed away if identification is possible. Instead, cameras pump their output onto hard disks, terabyte upon terabyte of data that churns away on a month-long loop. Grainy CCTV footage is fast being relegated to just another cinematic cliché; besides, another technological enhancement has arrived to undermine the anonymity that is the modern city’s most defining characteristic.

On the short walk from platform to office I count 30 cameras, seven on the tube itself and the rest fixed to buildings, usually paired up at corners, looking this way and that, covering all bases.A new generation of facial recognition software promises a science fiction solution to crowd control. By hooking up camera feeds to hefty databases and image-processing software, the theory is that tomorrow’s electronic eyes will be able to pick a face from millions. That’s the salesman’s line, at least, and in a city that generates tens of millions of hours of CCTV footage each year, anyone who can successfully automate the tedious process of scanning, watching, and waiting will attract the attention of the authorities. Trials into so-called biometric systems started in East London in 1999 when an American company called Visionics installed a database of the facial characteristics of known violent offenders. The existing network of cameras in the London borough of Newham was then “instructed” to keep a weather eye out for the hoods. Known as the “FaceIt” system, the exercise was not an immediate success; for a time it kept busiest by trying to track down the faces in mugshots offered by reporters seeking to slip through the system. In fact, as a 2002 article by one-such criminal wannabe revealed, the system had yet to make a single match. That’s not to say other local authorities weren’t interested: It would be naive to assume that FaceIt v2.0 and its competitors aren’t up and running in central London right now.

If facial recognition is still a few generations away from the scan, zoom, and deploy tactics demonstrated in The Island, recognizing number plates, on the other hand, is a cinch. London’s much-publicized Congestion Charge seems to work pretty well, if pretty well is the unwelcome arrival of a £50 fine for slipping into the central zone without first forking out the required £8 daily fee. Congestion has been cut, it’s true, but if anything, the charge has increased the number of upscale automobiles rolling slowly into the financial district; the Embankment is clogged with exotic machinery from Germany and Italy every morning and evening as bankers and brokers parade the fruits of their bonuses. The rest of us note sneakily that the charge doesn’t apply on weekends, so adept drivers who know their way around London’s West End and are gifted at stumbling upon parking spaces can elbow their way right into the commercial center.


It’s safe to assume that the Congestion Charge camera network remains ticking over weekends, even if it’s not in the business of handing out tickets. The lenses, bolted onto hefty poles forming “gateways” into the central area, are in good company. In 2002, the U.K. apparently hosted 10% of the world’s 25 million CCTV cameras, and that number just keeps on growing. The London Underground alone has 6,000 and is expected to double its coverage in the next five years. On the short walk from platform to office I count 30 cameras, seven on the tube itself and the rest fixed to buildings, usually paired up at corners, looking this way and that, covering all bases.

Immediately after the July 7 bombs, it was reported that the police had some 35,000 hours of CCTV footage to sift through, with no ultra-smart computer to help them out. It was a mammoth job, but a worthwhile one, for it was CCTV that provided the clues to the bombers’ identity and movements on the day of the attacks. Cameras had caught them parking their cars, boarding their trains, entering the tubes, standing on the carriages with their deadly backpacks, and even—it is rumored—images from the very moment of detonation. Investigations after the second attempted bombing brought into sharp focus the way in which contemporary technologies form powerful tools—CCTV images of all four “failed” bombers were rapidly circulated around the world. But with each intelligence success, a little bit of our individualist utopia is chipped away. The city’s CCTV system is a valuable law enforcement tool, but only after the event. CCTV did nothing to prevent atrocity or tragedy, and no amount of facial recognition, satellite pinpointing, or ultra-sharp intelligence will do anything to prevent atrocities in the future. The camera isn’t yet a universal panacea, and even fictive futures have stopped short of combining the spy with a device capable of apprehending the felon. (Although the dismal thought remains that deep in some R&D lab a luckless scientist is working on ways to imbue inert street furniture with crime-fighting abilities).

The idea that each man is an island, drifting through life in a bubble, is now little more than self-perpetuated illusion. Snooped on by cameras on car and on foot, tracked by your mobile phone, traced by your credit card; every step in your daily journey leaves a little trace map, an electronic imprint on the grid. The Situationists, the small but highly influential group of late-1950s European thinkers, would have been justified by the way in which daily life in the modern city has been reduced to a series of spectacles, played out unknowingly by the watched, performing their daily routines for an invisible audience. Situationist thought fragmented into many philosophical and artistic directions, but one of the still-current manifestations is psychogeography—a means of exploring cities and what it means to exist within an urban landscape.

In 1984, Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith is haunted by the sinister Telescreens, vast devices that churn out propaganda while keeping tabs on the population of Oceania. “[Smith] thought of the telescreen with its never-sleeping ear. They could spy upon you night and day, but if you kept your head you could still outwit them.” Yet Orwell’s mechanical spies were screens, not cameras, and bore the image of Big Brother himself, a personification of the sinister Party. The post-war generation was still in thrall to the budding technology of television, and it was the glowing magic of moving pictures, achieved without projection, that held the public’s fascination and had fictional potential as the manifestation of a sinister overseer. While the human image still commanded power and respect, the camera could retain its innocence, a bit part player in a larger game.

The international media—and to some extent the British media as well—love to refer to London’s recent administrations as Orwellian in their love of CCTV and surveillance. Crucially, our technological inversion of Orwell’s world works because now it’s the image-makers that are to be feared; respect for the image itself has slowly eroded away. It’s no little irony that one of the most popular British television shows of the past decade should be called Big Brother, a format now seen in over 70 countries. The current series, the sixth, ended in late August, with the tabloid press embarked on its now traditional annual orgy of interviews, profiles, scoops, and tie-ins, elbowing “proper” news off the front pages. The relationship of power is inverted; we, the viewers, have the camera, commanding the action on the screens.

And all the while, throughout the cities of the real world, cameras click and whirr, watching for goodness knows what.


TMN Contributing Writer Jonathan Bell lives in South London. He co-edits Things Magazine and likes to write about architecture. More by Jonathan Bell