Last year, George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four saw a sales increase of 9500%, topping the Amazon bestseller list. The resurgence of dystopian fiction has been linked to the ascension of president Donald Trump. Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” are compared to the work of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. Online data hoarding has been compared to Orwell’s Ministry of Love. Any given two minutes of a Trump supporter’s day looks like Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate. Many are asking if we’re living in the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four today.
The truth is, we’re probably not. But we’re closer than ever. And the drift towards this Orwellian nightmare started long before Donald Trump was sworn in. It even started before the NSA and GCHQ mass data collection came into effect. It started with CCTV.
How CCTV took over the world
Spend the day going about your daily business in the UK and you will find yourself caught on camera 70 times. That’s 70 different security cameras recording your actions. On the road you’re recorded by speed cameras. On the high street you’re recorded by security cameras attached to businesses, banks, and lamp posts. Buses, pubs, restaurants, even hospitals—you’re on camera in all of these places, and more. Children are even recorded at school.
A 2011 estimate from the British Security Industry Authority (BSIA) put the number of surveillance cameras in the country at 5.9 million. That was one for every 11 people in the country at the time, which is excessive to say the least. The BSIA estimate has been disputed, with the police themselves putting the figure closer to 1.85 million; either way, it’s still a huge number of cameras.
The number of cameras in the UK had been growing rapidly before 2011. Banksy satirised the spread of surveillance back in 2008 with his ‘One Nation Under CCTV’ mural. Yet there is no clear reason why CCTV began to take off in the way it did. The increase in video surveillance was not unique to the UK. MSNBC has reported on the worldwide rise of CCTV as part of a “post-9/11” wave of security boosts, which often has very little to do with actually combating terrorism, instead targeting crimes like shoplifting, burglary or assault.
The privacy implications of mass CCTV
No one installs a CCTV camera purely to observe people, as the totalitarian rulers of Oceana do in Nineteen Eighty-Four. These cameras are intended to protect both people and property. In some cases, they achieve this with little negative consequences. CCTV installed outside a home, for example, can help keep an individual family protected.
As Security 201 points out when discussing the benefits of CCTV, security cameras and privacy can coexist, as long as homeowners follow the laws governing CCTV installation. In effect, this means people should film only their property, and not the surrounding area. These are sensible rules that are not always followed by businesses and cameras operated by public authorities.
The UK government’s CCTV watchdog Terry Porter has warned about the scale of mass surveillance that has come about as a result of this surge in popularity. Regardless of whether these cameras do keep us safe, their wide penetration risks altering the “psyche of the community” by effectively turning people into walking database entries with little to no privacy.
Touching on what will likely be the next big surveillance trend, Porter said “there should be a genuinely good and compelling reason” for it, as it “changes the nature of society and raises moral and ethical issues.”
CCTV is still something we should be concerned with, but it is now part of a wider network of surveillance by governments and corporations, which spans online media giants like Google and Facebook, retail companies like Amazon, and government agencies like GCHQ and the NSA. It’s important for us to stay safe, and CCTV cameras can help with that. But Terry Porter is right. We need to think carefully about what kind of society this surveillance is turning us into, and whether we want to be a part of that. It’s encouraging that more people are picking up Nineteen Eighty-Four. When readers find it looks a little too familiar, the public conversation about surveillance may really take off.