London Is the Surveillance Society's Biggest Test Yet

Will its network of closed circuit cameras bring to justice an unprecedented percentage of rioters? Or is all the lost privacy for naught?

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For several years now, the British media have been telling us that theirs is a surveillance society. "It could be the 4 million closed-circuit television cameras, or maybe the spy drones hovering overhead, but one way or another Britons know they are being watched. All the time. Everywhere," Luke Baker wrote in a representative Reuters article published in 2007, going on to note that "Britain is now the most intensely monitored country in the world, according to surveillance experts, with 4.2 million CCTV cameras installed, equivalent to one for every 14 people."

As is now evident, CCTV cameras aren't sufficient to prevent rioters and looters from causing mayhem on the streets of London. But what's going to happen in the aftermath of the riots? "Britain turned to a tough reckoning with the perpetrators, with courts sitting through the night and the police saying Thursday that over 1,200 people had been arrested, the bulk of them in London," the New York Times reports. How many were identified due to surveillance cameras, as opposed to television footage, newspaper photographers, and social media? And what role will CCTV footage play in days to come?

As Alexis Madrigal notes, it takes a lot of time to sift through video, so we aren't going to have answers for awhile. But when they come, it'll likely be a defining moment for urban surveillance.

Scenario 1

Perhaps we're about to witness the most effective large scale identification of riot participants in human history. If so, it'll be a momentous development. Perhaps next time, the presence of those cameras and the experience of prosecutions really will prevent people from rioting. More masks could be worn, of course, but would the necessity for them ruin a necessary condition of rising violence?

Unprecedented success prosecuting rioters might also prompt other European governments to up their surveillance capabilities, an unfortunate possibility for us civil libertarians, but no less likely for its Orwellian undertones. It may be a good time to buy stock in surveillance companies.

Scenario 2

Or perhaps the British surveillance state won't make much of a difference in preventing future riots or prosecuting people in the aftermath of this one. If law enforcement there isn't any better at punishing rioters than their analogues in other countries, that's a strong argument for rethinking their whole system: if surveillance doesn't prevent wanton street violence and property destruction, the notion that its benefits outweigh its costs (loss of privacy and potential abuse by authorities) is all the more dubious. Of course, some people would cite such a failure as a justification for even more intensive surveillance equipment, but that impulse should be resisted.

Image credit: Reuters.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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