On a recent trip to London, it was difficult to overlook the city’s most common landmark: closed circuit TV cameras. With nearly 2 million security cameras, London is the most watched city in the world.
Security cameras are everywhere in London: On street corners, on trains, in public spaces and in private homes. To visitors, like myself, it all seems a bit too Orwellian. However, locals have become so accustomed to the cameras that they’ve become invisible. And, that’s the point according to Jeremy Bentham, an 18th Century English philosopher and social theorist.
Bentham invented the Panopticon, a prison where the behavior of every prisoner was managed by a continuous perception of unseen surveillance. The Panopticon prison is cheaper by design than other prisons because it requires fewer guards. Since the watchmen couldn’t be seen, they don’t need not be on duty at all times. CCTV is a modern day Panopticon.
The concept of a modern day Panopticon is darkly explored in a series of books by John Twelve Hawks. In Hawks (not his real name) works, the Panoption is a world-wide phenomenon. Twelve Hawks weaves a tale of paranoia and intrigue. Although the tale is fictional, it’s the embodiment of Twelve Hawks real-life paranoia. His initial biography on the Random House website was only one line: “John Twelve Hawks lives off the grid.”
In ‘Erasing David,’ a 2010 documentary featured at SXSW, David Bond explores his CCTV paranoia. In the film, he decides to find out how much private companies and the government know about him by putting himself under surveillance and attempting to disappear – a decision that changes his life forever. Leaving his pregnant wife and young child behind, he is tracked across the database state on a chilling journey that forces him to contemplate the meaning of privacy – and the loss of it. Throughout the film, Bond becomes increasingly paranoid with no real evidence.
He’s trapped in a Panopticon of his own creation. In the end, he’s thwarted by his garbage can (as the trackers he hires riffles through his garbage for clues) and his family ties. CCTV cameras, social media activity and his online identity weren’t factors in tracking him down.
Real-life results from CCTV are similar. There is little evidence that 2 million cameras have an impact on crime fighting. A comparison of the number of cameras in each London borough with the proportion of crimes solved there found that police are no more likely to catch offenders in areas with hundreds of cameras than in those with hardly any. In fact, four out of five of the boroughs with the most cameras have a record of solving crime that is below average. If CCTV has any impact on crime, it’s only among paranoid criminals.
Welcome to the Panopticon.
Credits: Photo captures an 2008 mural from ‘Banksy,’ a popular graffiti artist in central London. To create the display, Banksy managed to erect three stories of scaffolding behind a security fence under the ‘watchful eye; of a CCTV camera.
Are ID cards and security cameras the foundation of an Orwellian society? The Identity Cards Act 2006 required all citizens of the UK to carry ID cards with them at all times by 2010. The legislation was later scrapped by the Conservative – Liberal Democrat Coalition after the 2010 general election.