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Real time CCTV data and frog stews

July 24, 2007

big brother societyWhen congestion charge CCTV cameras were first introduced, the Greater London Authority promised they would not pass on the information to the police. Then they started to allow access to the police to look at the video afterwards on a case-to-case basis.

Now the BBC reports that new rules are in place that give the police access to live CCTV feeds to monitor all vehicles inside the congestion charge area.

What does this have to do with frogs and stew?

The boiling frog story tells that a frog will jump out of boiling water but place it in cold water, increase the temperature slowly and the frog will not notice the heat and end up being boiled.

The story can serve as an analogy to the UK citizen surveillance situation.

Ordinary citizens are the frogs and the heated water is the erosion of our privacy and liberty.

Being cooked would represent that there is no privacy left and that the government has total insight into our private lives: who we vote for, what books we check out at the library and what colour of underwear we put on in the morning (if any).

The introduction of London CCTV congestion cameras is a lesson in how the government can get away with measures that would cause public outcry were they introduced openly.

A new system that has the potential to be abused is introduced by the government. People allow it because the initial purpose is legitimate and the government sets rules to guarantee legitimate use only.

However once the system is in place the rules are changed and abuse (with regards to the citizens) is allowed.

Only by overseeing the use of the cameras by the public or by public representatives can the public preserve their privacy.

This could be achieved by offering web access to all congestion charge CCTV cameras installed in London. After all, they are only filming public places thus creating public information.

The police could be given an advantage of getting access to live feeds whereas the public would see a delayed (1 hour?) feed.

This would also give a small window for any legitimate redactions (the removing of confidential and/or sensitive information in a public document without distorting the meaning of the record).

Without any public oversight the live CCTV data is effectively a Big Brother's palantir.

"Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety" - Benjamin Franklin.

In related news, American Civil Liberties Union are objecting to proposed automated plate readers that would store vehicle GPS data infinitely. I wonder why.

Update August 8th
New York City is seeking funding for a multi-million dollar surveillance system modelled on the one used in London.

Steve Swain, who served for years with the London Metropolitan Police and its counter-terror operations had the following to say about CCTV surveillance systems:

"I don't know of a single incident where CCTV has actually been used to spot, apprehend or detain offenders in the act"
and further
"The presence of CCTV is irrelevant for those who want to sacrifice their lives to carry out a terrorist act."


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