Photo: Louie Douvis
Surveillance is a gradual and incessant creep, the House of Lords warns. Unchecked, we march towards a mark where every detail about an individual is recorded and pored over by both the state and private sectors.
By then, though, it will be no use asking who is watching us – because everyone will be.
The Age | Aug 30, 2009
THE all-seeing eye was once seen as a divine force, surrounded by dazzling rays of light from on high. Its eyelid heavy but gaze unwavering, the eye was the protective stare of a supreme being watching over us from above.
Now, though, it simply watches, often from the shadows. Peering down from security cameras as we walk the city streets, buy bread at the corner store, fill the car with petrol, or catch a taxi or tram. Tracking us through our mobile phone or when driving through a tollway to Melbourne Airport, which last year trialled “virtual strip search” security scanners. Someone’s watching while we’re surfing online, sending an email, or updating our Facebook profile to paranoid. Melbourne once held pretensions of being the city that never sleeps. Now, at least, it is the city that never shuts its eyes.
A locked, windowless room within the Town Hall has become the city’s high priestess of surveillance. Endless CCTV footage screens along the wall, fed from cameras looking over Melbourne’s streets, laneways and dark corners. The latest tilt-and-zoom cameras rotate 360 degrees, so few crannies escape unseen. They can pick out a face in the crowd from a kilometre away.
Lord Mayor Robert Doyle this month announced the city had installed a further 31 “Safe City cameras” in the CBD – bringing the total to 54 – to combat rising street violence. Specially trained security contractors monitor the cameras without respite from the small control room, the exact location of which is secret and off-bounds to media. One sanctioned visitor told The Sunday Age it was like stepping into a reality TV control booth, where you’re the producer deciding who should be seen on the big screen.
“There will be groups that say this is Big Brother. I say, ‘Bad luck, city safety comes first’,” Doyle declared. “The message is now clear to those who wish to commit a crime in our streets: the likelihood is that now you will be seen.”
But then, so will everyone else. Former UK information commissioner Richard Thomas, whose term ended in June, once warned Britain was sleepwalking into a “surveillance society”. Two years later, in 2006, they woke up “to a surveillance society that is already all around us”. The UK is the most-watched patch on Earth, boasting an estimated four million CCTV cameras, and leads the world in building a national DNA database, with more than 7 per cent of the population already logged.
Australia has been more restrained. But the pressure to deploy new and more affordable surveillance technologies is constant. This month, La Trobe University academics proposed installing tracking devices in cars, similar to those used in truck fleets, to charge drivers more for using busier roads during peak hours. In Sydney tomorrow, the city council will debate proposals giving police more access to its CCTV network for general ”intelligence gathering”, and releasing footage to the media to discourage antisocial behaviour.
Access to the City of Melbourne’s CCTV system is restricted to police and lawyers for alleged offenders and victims, and unused footage is destroyed after 30 days. An external audit committee monitors compliance of the program with various protocols. But still there are concerns over the all-seeing eye. We can no longer assume activities performed in public places will pass unobserved and unrecorded, the Victorian Law Reform Commission says. Ours is a surveillance society, too.
”It really is no longer possible to be anonymous in most public places. We are very quickly losing the capacity to blend in as part of the crowd,” says the commission’s chairman, Professor Neil Rees. ”Any time you have been into the city of Melbourne your image will have been captured on one of these systems and stored.
”We all have a shared interest in blending in, in having a private conversation in a quiet corner. Now, with all the surveillance equipment out there, that is really not possible to do with confidence.”
The commission will advise the Attorney-General early next year on whether regulation of surveillance technologies is needed to protect people’s privacy. Early suggestions include appointing an independent regulator to monitor surveillance of public places.
In a consultation paper released in March, the commission said such surveillance was likely to become more widespread as devices became more affordable and invisible. ”The Surveillance Devices Act in Victoria is 10 years old and the technology has exploded over the last 10 years,” Rees says. ”It is a profound issue for us as a community. As the equipment gets more and more sophisticated, more and more people will retreat behind high walls. Others are going to have to live with the fact that their every moment is capable of being monitored by somebody.
”We need to strike a balance between getting the best out of technology and not being made to feel we are being intruded on, perhaps overzealously, in public places. That balance is not going to be easy to achieve.”
The commission also highlighted an increase in the use of tracking devices such as GPS, radio frequency identification, automatic number plate recognition, mobile phone surveillance and biometrics. Behavioural modelling by online companies such as Google is another growing concern. The popular online search engine is testing ”interest-based advertising” in the US that will pitch ads at individual consumers based on ”de-identified” surveillance of their internet use.
The new technology, which could be in Australia by next year, is part of what The New York Times last month called a sea change in the way consumers encounter the web. People will start seeing customised ads, different versions of websites, even different discounts to other users when shopping, based on what retailers know about their tastes and budget. ”On the old internet, nobody knew you were a dog,” the article’s author wrote. ”On the new targeted internet, they now know what kind of dog you are, your favourite leash colour, the last time you had fleas and the date you were neutered.”
MAGNUM sniffs me as I walk inside Victorian Detective Services, on a violent day in Carnegie. He’s a Weimaraner – a gundog – named after the 1980s TV crime series Magnum P.I. Going on 11, his hunting days past, he now acts as a genial mascot of sorts for this party of private investigators.
Over a cup of white tea in his corner office, beneath framed photographs of James Bond and a Scarface montage, general manager Mark Grover talks the surveillance game. ”There is always a reason why someone is under surveillance,” he says. ”It could be a salesman that is playing the back nine every second day instead of working. It could be an airline pilot who has put in that they are sick or ill but might be flying a cargo plane now in Nigeria, while receiving benefits here. Maybe it’s a truck driver knocking off a couple of dozen bottles of red on his delivery … All employers typically are curious about what some of their staff who are no good are up to.”
Grover, a former president of the World Investigators Network, has been in the game for 22 years. Back in the day, his car was his office and a long-lens camera his friend. ”It’s tiring, boring, you put on weight after a long time – 14, 15-hour days sitting in the car, standing in the cold. Nobody loves you. No TV. Just watching.”
Technology has since changed the way he watches. He might track targets through their telephone or email, lift revealing photographs from social networking websites or log into CCTV camera footage in Paris or Amsterdam. Surveillance is now in the hands of anyone with a mobile phone camera, he says.
On a table in his office are other tools of his trade: a spy-pen camera small enough to film from your top pocket; a wristwatch camera and a teeny black-box listening device with a SIM card that can be used to eavesdrop on conversations undetected.
”Everything is possible, it’s just a matter of asking how it’s done,” he says. ”And staying within the law as well,” he adds, after a pause.
Surveillance technology has grown so pervasive and inexpensive, anyone might fancy themselves an amateur snoop. Retailers such as OzSpy sell high-resolution spy pens, which record video and audio, from $129, and spy watches with colour video and audio for $199. Spy cameras are hidden inside smoke detectors ($359), desktop clocks ($219), power points ($299) and motorcycle helmets ($189). CCTV cameras sell for as little as $159.