One of the more interesting panels at yesterday's conference dealt with internet (and other) surveillance in daily life. While all of the panelists were interesting, Madeline Ashby
, who was introduced to me via her story in the Hieroglyph
anthology, was the one whose ideas intrigued me the most.
Her main point about the current atmosphere of surveillance was that most Westerners had been conditioned to believe that there was someone all powerful, constantly watching, constantly judging our actions. She then went on to quote Santa Claus is Coming to Town
. Later, she was more explicit about how the concept of an omnipotent, omnipresent God made it easier for us to shrug off actual surveillance revelations.
While I don't think she's entirely correct, I do think she has a point. I know people who, like me, watch British TV mysteries and are surprised that US police can't just go to the CCTV footage. (London has more CCTV cameras than all the other countries in the EU put together -- or at least it did two years ago when I read about it. And yes, one city
has more than many other countries. The UK population is the most observed in the free world.) I think that level of casual surveillance is appalling, but too many people think it's a great idea in crime prevention.
We accept surveillance because we're scared even when the surveillance can't help us. There may be some crimes prevented by CCTV on every corner, but hoodies and desperation mean that it doesn't really cut down on property crimes (which have gone up slightly in the US even as the violent crime rates have mostly gone down). What CCTV can do is help to identify suspects after a crime has been committed. In other words, it doesn't prevent crime.
Internet surveillance, especially the big net trawl model which seems to be in use by our intelligence agencies, has the same problem. Because it's so comprehensive, it can be difficult to use it in prevention -- although, to be fair, some terrorist acts seem to have been caught in advance -- but it is a very useful tool for putting together what happened later.
The problem is, it can be a very useful tool for finding a crime when a particular person has become a thorn in the side of a government or other entity with influence. I'm against online piracy, but I'm pretty sure I have at least a couple of suspect downloads somewhere, and I think something analogous is true for most users.
The idea that every panelist kept coming back to, but Madeline Ashby really emphasized, was that it's easy to find the crime once the government (or whomever) is motivated to look for it.