National Geographic : 2018 Feb
48 national geographic • february 2018 deserts of northern Iraq. And thanks to numer- ous space probes, scientists have proof that the world’s climate is dramatically changing. Could the great Orwell’s imagination have failed? Could Big Brother save humanity, rather than enslave it? Or might both scenarios be true at the same time? ‘T HERE IS AN APPETITE in the U.K. for sur- veillance that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world,” said Tony Porter, the world’s only known surveillance camera commissioner, as we sat in the cafete- ria of a London government office with CCTV cameras peering at us from the corners. A former police officer and counterterrorism specialist, Porter was recruited four years ago by Her Majesty’s Home Office, responsible for the security of the realm, to lend a semblance of oversight to the country’s ever growing surveillance state. With a paltry an- nual budget of $320,000, Porter and three staffers spend their workdays persistently urging, with some success, government and commercial us- ers of surveillance cameras to comply with the relevant codes and guidelines. But beyond men- tioning the names of the noncompliant in a report to Parliament, Porter’s office has no pow- ers of enforcement. Nonetheless, his appraisal of the U.K. as the most receptive country in the world to surveil- lance technology is widely shared. London’s net- work of surveillance cameras was first conceived in the early nineties, in the wake of two bombings by the Irish Republican Army in the city’s finan- cial district. What followed was a fevered spread of monitoring technology. As William Webster, a professor of public policy at the University of Stirling in Scotland and an expert on surveil- lance, recalls, “The rhetoric about public safety at the time was, ‘If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.’ In hindsight, you can trace that slogan back to Nazi Germany. But the phrase was commonly used, and it crushed any sentiment against CCTVs.” The city’s original security infrastructure, known as the “ring of steel,” was later expanded and augmented by ANPR technology on major thoroughfares. Now spread throughout the coun- try are 9,000 such cameras, which photograph and store 30 million to 40 million images daily of every single passing license tag, not merely those of speeders or known criminals. As former Scotland police counterterrorism coordinator Al- lan Burnett observes, “It would be very difficult today to go through Scotland and not be seen by an ANPR camera.” “I’m pretty sure we now have more CCTVs per capita than any other city on the planet,” the for- mer U.K. deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, told me as he sat in his London office, watched by a camera across the street trained directly on his back. “And basically, it’s happened without any meaningful public or political debate whatsoever. Partly it’s because we don’t have the history of fas- cism and nondemocratic regimes, which in other countries have instilled profound suspicion of the state. Here it feels benign. And as we know from history, it’s benign until it isn’t.” Elements of fear and romance help explain the profusion of surveillance in the U.K. This, after all, is a country saved by espionage: The museum commemorating the legendary World War II code breakers at Bletchley Park, 40 miles northwest of London, is today a much visited site. So, for that matter, is the London Film Museum’s permanent exhibit on the dashing spy James Bond, a creation of the writer and former British naval intelligence officer Ian Fleming. Agent 007 is bound up in the nation’s postwar self-appraisal, but so is the jolting reality that the U.K. was one of the first coun- tries to face the constant fear of terrorist attacks. When it comes to protecting its people, the Brit- ish government is viewed in a more appreciative light than perhaps those of other free societies. Even after the revelations by former U.S. Nation- al Security Agency contract employee Edward Snowden that American and British intelligence agencies had been collecting bulk data from their own citizens—a disclosure that triggered calls for reform by both political parties in the U.S.— Parliament essentially enshrined those powers in late 2016 by passing the Investigatory Powers Act with scant public outcry.