They’re watching you

Walk down your local high street with your neck angled roofwards and – being careful not to crash into a lamp-post – see how many CCTV cameras you can spot. Even for the vast majority of us who have nothing to hide, it’s an unsettling experience.


With over four million closed circuit TV cameras – that’s one for every 14 people – Britain has become one of the most observed places on the planet. Our closest neighbours on the list of “surveillance” societies are China and North Korea, neither of which are typically regarded as models of democracy.


It’s an emotive issue. And while many people justifiably ask why they should be concerned if they’re not upto anything dodgy, the use of CCTV to catch criminals in the act is increasingly being seen as the thin end of a very thick edge in which CCTV, mobile phones, travel passes and supermarket loyalty cards join forces to gather disproportionate amounts of data regarding our daily comings and goings. Add to this the fact that there’s mounting evidence that CCTV doesn’t achieve much more than enable the government to justify fewer police out on the beat, and Britain’s surveillance society becomes an increasingly worrying phenomena.


A self-consciously unalarmist (and all the more disturbing for this) report launched this week by The Royal Academy of Engineering highlights some of the things that could go wrong when technology and personal privacy collide on this scale, and it makes sobering reading.


The report argues that the increased use of surveillance technologies threatens to bring about a technical failure of catastrophic proportions. E-Passports, biometrics, the National Identity Register, public data on the web all have serious risks associated with them. If the system breaks down, as a result of accident or sabotage, the information that is lost, leaked or tampered with could have catastrophic effects on the individuals concerned.


On a less apocalyptic note, the report argues that there’s no reason why issues of personal privacy and public security have to be mutually exclusive. And part of the responsibility to find a route through this quagmire, lies with, you’ve guessed it, engineers, who through properly developed technology could help society tiptoe the fine line between safer streets and protected personal privacy.


It’s positive news for engineers, a vote of confidence for the power of technology to effectively address society’s problems. But it’s also a sobering reminder, that engineers, like all human beings, are responsible for the consequences of their actions. Technology creep – the notion that technology invented for one thing ends up being exploited in all kinds of sinister ways by governments, marketing people, insurance companies and nosey parkers is not really an excuse. While government must shoulder much of the responsibility for the way in which technology is deployed and regulated, engineers also have a responsibility to think about the ways in which technology can be abused, and then attempt to ensure that this won’t be possible.


Jon Excell


Features Editor