Face the facts on surveillance

Rupert Goodwins: New technology can mean an end to old liberties, but there are ways to short-circuit the watchers

In an interview with ZDNet UK earlier this week, Phil Zimmermann said that Moore's Law was one of the biggest threats to civil liberty. "The human population does not double every 18 months but its ability to use computers to keep track of us does," he said, referring to what he sees as the threat to privacy from the increased use of surveillance cameras. "You can't encrypt your face."

He's not joking. On my way into work today, I counted more than thirty-five cameras watching me, and that's excluding those watching the road for the congestion charge, those behind windows, those in police or other vehicles, or those in any way concealed. It used to be that you could take a certain comfort from the knowledge that short of employing half the country to watch the other half, a severe shortage of eyeballs would leave you some privacy in your outdoor life. Not now. Our friend the computer can identify us by face, gait, body proportions -- and this week, Intel even released open source lip-reading software. Who needs microphones?

As well as making 2001: A Space Odyssey even more apt a fable for the 21st century, this technology comprehensively changes the relationship between you and the state. I don't remember being asked about that. If I'm worried and uncomfortable about the potential for abuse, how about those citizens who traditionally enjoy a closer relationship with our guardians than most?

Take kids hanging out on street corners. It's true that they can feel very threatening. One of my favourite London haunts, Camden Town, has recently started to host many such gatherings, and it's easy for a flabby white male to feel a bit pressured as he lollops past a bunch of black youths dressed like extras from a rap video.

It's nonsense, of course. Not only is it everyone's right to meet up with their mates in public, but doing so is part of a long Caribbean tradition called liming -- the art of doing nothing much with your chums for as long as possible. It's not only respectable, it's a competitive art form. Nothing is allowed to disturb a good lime, and people aren't expected to leave unless 'this lime ain't got no juice'. You can't but admire a tradition of creative slacking.

Yet there are plenty of people who would criminalise idleness, given half a chance. In 21st century Britain, if you're not pursuing some easily defined economic goal in a sanctified manner, you're counted as legitimate prey. With street surveillance by camera, and with the new automated recognition software, the tools are there to enforce such laws -- and the effect will be a stultifying retreat into a sullen, monolithic culture of computer-applied rules and repression.

No wonder the alternative clothing of choice for the young urbanite is the hoodie over a baseball cap. Just as worrying for the bourgeoisies, but in a world where every street corner has a machine tracking your movements it's a style that could catch on -- first, just out of a criminal cool, and then out into the wider population. CCTV could do for hat wearing among the male populace what Princess Di did for the female millinery industry. But it won't be enough.

I've long fantasised about a device that knocks out CCTV cameras, but the technology just isn't there. Lasers just light up a bright spot on the output, flashguns are practically unnoticeable, and while you can disrupt the image by enough electromagnetic energy, there's no way to focus the stuff. An axe through the video cable or spray paint on a stick will do the trick, but I'm no fan of criminal acts -- at least when committed in direct view of the law.

There are various forms of activism that creatively target these systems, with varying degrees of legitimacy. Demanding any tapes containing your picture is a good one -- it's an electronic record, after all, and the Data Protection Act gives us rights over such things. As more systems get wireless, jamming becomes a definite possibility, and whether the system will work in the presence of lots of fake faces on posters, clothing and in other parts of the cameras image is an interesting question.

None of that will stop the surveillance state, but it should make people think. In the end, the only way we can reclaim our faces, our bodies and our actions for ourselves is to demand that we get some control back over the cameras. A public directory of where they are and who runs them would be a start, and comprehensive access to the records. And if the government won't do that, we can -- armed with a digital camera, a map and a Web site anyone can compile and publish a list of their local Orwellian hardware. Sometimes a little action is necessary to defend your right to do nothing.

Who's watching you? Get the latest on spy networks such as Echelon and Carnivore, as well as privacy issues for companies and individuals alike, at ZDNet UK's Privacy News Section.

Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom.