Since the formation of organised states, surveillance has been a fact of life, neighbours would report people’s breaking of laws and norms to the state, or the state’s officers would directly arrest rule-breakers. However, the modern era saw an explosion in technologies like the telephone, camera, radio, satellite and computer that could be used to track citizens’ behaviour and thoughts. This post looks at how surveillance technology should be used, and the race against time to stop dictators creating the perfect autocracies.

The most noticeable form of surveillance when British people go about their day is cameras. There is 1 CCTV camera for every 13 people in the UK, which is a staggering figure. These have 4 sources: Councils or Police, businesses, homes, and doorbell cameras. These mostly have the legitimate purpose of increasing safety and security, since they both have a deterrent effect on, and help punish perpetrators of, crime and antisocial behaviour. However, there are very legitimate concerns over the increasing lack of privacy, and how this affects Britons’ mental wellbeing. The reason this is important is privacy allows us to maintain our human dignity and freedom of expression, without the degrading feeling of constantly being spied on. 

Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) perhaps the most famous conservative thinker of the last century, wrote that government should focus on preventing evil rather than guiding society to a “collective good.” Thus he might well have approved of the rise of the CCTV camera as its (main) purpose is the humble goal of providing order and security, which is nothing utopian or sinister but rather the traditional conservative conceptualisation of the state’s purpose. However, he might have taken issue with the fact formal government structures control much of this. In his work “The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Skepticism”, published posthumously, he puts forward the idea there are 2 modes of social organization – civil association and enterprise association. A very crude way to visualise his idea might be to imagine a scale going from Pragmatism to Idealism with civil association on the left and Enterprise association on the right.  Put simply, civil associations are preferable because they do not impose a goal on the group, merely binding rules and laws to play by. Enterprise associations on the other hand are groups (or even nation-states) which impose a purpose on their members, such as profit or trans rights, and are thus guided by naivety and a lack of skepticism about human nature. Therefore Oakeshott might have disapproved of how enterprise associations with potential hidden agendas like Local authorities, the Police and government departments (e.g Highways England) control hundreds of thousands of cameras across the UK, and might have wished for a larger role for groups of residents formed into civil associations, with only the desire for security motivating them. 

Thankfully the UK has better data regulation than most countries, and our government is much more democratic as well. The Amended Surveillance Camera Code of Practice states surveillance camera systems should be “in pursuit of a legitimate aim; necessary to meet a pressing need; proportionate; effective, and compliant with any relevant legal obligations.” This is a balanced policy that is in line with the English common law’s longstanding emphasis on reasonability rather than the rigid letter of the law. The document goes on to give 12 guiding principles that aim to reduce government and business misuse of and recklessness with CCTV. These include the laudable wishes that no more video should be kept than ‘strictly required’, that there should be ‘as much transparency… as possible’ and ‘effective review and audit mechanisms’. However, in practice these wishes are sometimes ignored, and here is where Michael Oakeshott’s preference for civil associations is well-founded. These should ideally have control of surveillance systems rather than enterprise associations because they would not have any dangerous ideals distracting from the key task of keeping law and order. For example, British Police Forces have been heavily criticized for wasting their time recording ‘non-crime hate incidents’, motivated by their impossible ideal of achieving absolute racial and sexual equality – they could instead arrest real criminals, for starters by using doorbell cam footage to arrest parcel thieves. 

The biggest danger surveillance presents is its power to enable the perfect dictatorship through omnipresent recording and live monitoring. This would effectively allow the state to become God, both all-powerful (in human affairs) AND all-knowing. And  man cannot overthrow God. A nascent example of this is China, which has an astounding 540 million CCTV cameras, more than 1 for every 3 people, and during COVID even installed cameras inside people’s homes to enforce quarantine. Almost as dangerous as its pervasiveness is CCTV’s increasing power. High definition video is now ubiquitous, Artificial Intelligence allows for automatic face recognition to identify dissidents, inbuilt microphones can record subversive conversation, expression analysis reveals discontent and gait analysis means even masks can no longer save you. An example of this new tech in action is how Russia uses its smart camera system in Moscow to detect young men avoiding conscription and service in its brutal war against Ukraine. In 1984 by George Orwell Telescreens are used to spy on people even at home and detect Thoughtcrime, which is the crime of just thinking in the wrong way. With the steady advance of CCTV technology such a reality seems increasingly plausible, and invites the frightening possibility that a technocratic authoritarian state could grow so effective at crushing opposition before it even forms, that it could last indefinitely. Just the fear such a system would create would paralyse individual, let alone organised, resistance. The old dictatorships, with their secret police and censorship, would look laughably crude before this nightmarish new breed. Time may be running out to stop this future. Regimes the world over are quickly adapting. It is perhaps essential for the future of democracy that the West make a big push to contain and unravel authoritarianism wherever it exists, before it becomes unassailable. 

In conclusion, the growing omnipresence and power of surveillance technology, most notably CCTV, enables authoritarian regimes to grow steadily more effective in crushing opposition, which in turn makes it important all countries should have stringent regulation like the UK’s, and preferably that civil associations, without dangerous ideals, control it. Therefore, the West must not be complacent that democracy will eventually win, and must race against time to expand it, before it is too late.