Nineteen Eighty-Four Is Coming True
Everyone is watching you
Nineteen Eighty-Four is coming true. Peter Wilson discovers George Orwell's London flat is surrounded by cameras, and surveillance monitors are about to get ears
In 1948, writer George Orwell sat in a chilly apartment on the top floor of a brick terrace in London conjuring up a fictional world in which people were under constant surveillance by cameras and microphones.
It was there, perched four storeys above the gardens of Canonbury Square in Islington, that Orwell began writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, setting out an oppressive future in which the all-seeing government of Big Brother watched over its frightened citizens, stamping out privacy and all free thought.
In this world, "you had to live - did live, from habit that became instinct - in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised".
The novel was finished in 1948 and published the following year. Six months later the author was dead from tuberculosis.
Orwell's writing was driven by his political convictions rather than any love of art for art's sake, and if he could see Canonbury Square today, he would be chuffed to find that Nineteen Eighty-Four and its attack on totalitarianism made such a profound impact that apartment 27B carries a historical marker celebrating his tenure.
He would be less pleased to find that his old view of the gardens is constantly scanned by two remote-controlled closed-circuit television cameras perched on the traffic lights in the middle of the square. And that another CCTV camera above the entrance of a conference centre in the next street has a commanding view into his apartment's rear window. In a lane just off the square, his favourite pub, the Compton Arms, is scanned by a security camera attached to the front of a nearby car yard, which records anybody going into or coming out of the pub.
About 100m farther, where Orwell's street meets busy Upper Street, I count security cameras in 10 shops, a bank and a council office with direct views of the intersection. A large traffic camera stares 24 hours a day at the intersection. In all there are 28 cameras within about 200m of his flat.
His bus stop on Upper Street is now serviced by buses fitted with internal cameras to keep an eye on passengers, and the nearest Tube station is also lined with cameras. Waterloo station alone has more than 250 cameras. The local post office, cinema, school, mall, chain stores, restaurants and petrol station all have CCTV cameras.
At any time Islington Council has two people working in a control centre to monitor its 24-hour network of 93 public space cameras, including two mobile units that occasionally drive by what used to be Orwell's front door.
London has become the most surveilled city in the world, with experts estimating that somebody moving about the city is captured by a remarkable average of 300 CCTV cameras a day. This is not the world of Big Brother: all those cameras are operated by thousands of Little Brothers with their own systems and agendas.
But it is possible to put together an almost constant video record of any individual's movements in London as they pass cameras operated by local councils, banks, businesses and police agencies.
Orwell, who died 30 years before the silicon chip opened up the possibilities of high-speed databanks and the instant mining of information, would have been disturbed by all this monitoring capacity.
Now the electronic scrutiny is about to take a remarkable step forward. The walls are about to gain ears to go with their eyes. Ultra-sensitive microphones capable of listening to and recording private conversations in public places from up to 100m away are being introduced to London's streets.
Experts believe that within a few years voice recognition technology will allow a new database to be built that could eventually allow officials to put a name to any voice picked up on the streets.
After a series of trials in The Netherlands, Westminster City Council has become the first municipality in London to try out microphones as a way of detecting "breaches of the peace".
"Even surveillance by cameras alone can have a chilling effect on public space and the use of microphones will just add to that," says Benjamin Goold, an Australian who teaches law at Oxford University and has written extensively on public surveillance in Britain.
"People have different views on this, but I think we are entitled to privacy in public spaces. If someone reads over your shoulder when you are sitting on a train or follows you around all day while you are shopping, you are obviously going to feel uncomfortable.
"That sort of behaviour infringes on your sense of personal autonomy, especially if it's the state that is doing the watching and listening, and (when) you don't know who is at the other end of the camera or why they are watching you.
"My research, and work by other people, has found that the really Orwellian stuff that people worry about is not happening now largely because the police and other authorities don't have the resources and haven't really integrated the technology into their information-gathering techniques.
"But the infrastructure has already been put in place and it could be used in a very worrying way. What are now poorly run systems could become very efficient."
Microphone cameras have been used at 300 sites across The Netherlands, where onesix-week trial led to 70 alarms and fourarrests by zeroing in on loud or angryconversations.
A spokesman for Westminster Council tells The Australian that noise monitoring units were attached to six cameras earlier this year as part of a broader trial of wireless technology. The microphones were set to detect general noise levels rather than specific conversations, he says, and were used mainly to pick up disturbances outside hotels. The council had decided to go ahead and build a wireless network covering 2.6sqkm of Westminster that would increase the number of cameras from 140 to 250 within the next 18 months, he says.
Goold expects British courts will "have difficulty working out how to regulate the use of microphones". "The courts have been pretty reticent to regulate surveillance in public spaces because they have always had trouble working out just how privacy works in public spaces," he says. "A lot of people will argue that yes, you are entitled to privacy in your own home, but once you step out into the street or, say, a park, you are in the public domain, so listening in to your conversations is fair game."
That's the view of David Conway, a senior research fellow at the right-wing think tank Civitas, who considers surveillance a "regrettable but necessary" part of the war on terror.
"I really don't care who hears what I say, whether it be on the telephone or in the park or in the street," Conway says. "We are in a state of war and war is an abnormal condition for a society to face, where rules that prevail in peacetime don't prevail, and accordingly we are doing our best to maintain our free traditions in the face of being at war.
"I don't think those who are trying to fight terror with forms of surveillance are giving away freedom: they are protecting freedom."
Brendan O'Neill, deputy editor of online left-wing magazine Spiked, disagrees, arguing that surveillance "feeds off and sustains a climate of suspicion and mistrust".
"It has had a very real, profound effect on our daily lives and on the nature of freedom because if you are watched every day, if you are spied on every time you leave the house, then you are fundamentally not a free citizen," O'Neill says.
"You are an object of suspicion, which is something completely different, and really we effectively live in a state of permanent extended parole where we are only free so long as we behave ourselves and please the authorities in the way that we walk and the way that we talk. That's not freedom."
Britain leads the world in CCTV penetration. Its 4.2 million cameras work out to one for every 14 citizens.
Britain's information commissioner Richard Thomas, whose role is to protect private information and promote access to official information, recently issued a report warning that the nation had already become a surveillance society as a result of the introduction of technologies that Orwell never imagined.
The monitoring of internet use and the tracking of emails and phone calls have been matched by the creation of national databases containing six million sets of fingerprints and 3.5 million DNA samples. Britain's most senior homicide investigator, Dave Johnston, this week called for newborn babies to be added to the DNA database at birth to help solve future crimes. Scotland Yard has even set up a unit to try to head off violent crimes by drawing up profiles and lists of potential murderers, just as Tom Cruise's character in the science fiction movie Minority Report studied patterns of behaviour to arrest people before they committed crimes.
Public opinion in Britain tends to support the use of CCTV to fight street crime and terrorism, despite research yielding little evidence that it prevents violent crime.
"It seems to be effective in stopping vehicle theft and some on-street property crime," Goold says. "Somebody who makes their living from stealing cars would factor in the presence of cameras, but a drunk or somebody on drugs who is about to do something violent would probably not even notice that there were any cameras.
"The police claim it has a good effect on crime. The research suggests that it doesn't really help them to prevent crime, but it does make them (police officers) more conscious of their own behaviour because they know they are likely to be caught on camera."
Sunil Amin, who owns a corner store 200m from Orwell's apartment, says he would not feel safe without a camera hanging from his shop's ceiling. "It cost me pound stg. 3000 ($7500), but it is absolutely essential for protection in London," he says.
Australia has been slow to join the surveillance revolution, but that may be starting to change.
Criminologists Adam Sutton, of the University of Melbourne, and Monash University's Dean Wilson say Australia's approach has differed from that of Britain largely because policing powers are dominated by the states, and Queensland's Government is the only one that shares the British Government's enthusiasm for CCTV technology.
Prime Minister John Howard was greatly influenced by the British approach to CCTV when he visited London after the July 2005 bombings. "I think of all the things that I have taken out of the few days that I have been in London, none has been more powerful than the huge value of surveillance cameras," he announced.
Two months later he convened a special meeting of the Council of Australian Governments to consider counter-terrorism arrangements, and it was agreed to step up the use of CCTV in public transport, beginning with a review by the state and federal governments of "the function, location, coverage and operability of mass passenger transport sector CCTV systems".
Peter Wilson is The Australian's Europe correspondent.