“The strategic adversary is fascism… the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.” Michel Foucault
A strange half-light seems to have settled over Britain. Our cars are to be monitored everywhere they go. Our public spaces and protests are violated by drones intended for military espionage. Our citizens are detained without trial and tortured by the intelligence services. Our police can kill the innocent with impunity and without shame. Our dissent is dismantled under the gaze of their cameras.
We, as citizens, are largely silent. Perhaps these things crept into the fabric of our public life too quietly, too alluringly, at a time when we were distracted and distraught; politically cynical and personally craven. They gained life as legislative arcana passed unheeded by a hidebound parliament of self-interested technocrats with an eye on ever-larger televisions bought on the expenses account. They were dust in Hansard’s transcripts. They did not relate to us.
These infringements, these tasteless, odorless Gestapo of the cyber age came as our waking lives were riddled with the daydream of property prices ploughing ever onwards, leaving a rich furrow of unearned income to pick over in their wake; our sleeping lives haunted by nightmares of bearded terrorists with a thanatotic fervour so nihilistic that torture and black site prisons seemed a small price to pay for our freedom from fear.
And so we slept as they came for those we wouldn’t speak up for and have woken in a world some of us do not and some of us refuse to recognize. It is very quiet.
To speak like this in polite society is to sound hysterical, shrill, or even paranoid. Why the self-indulgent, tinfoil-hat ranting?
After all it takes more than the vaguely comical introduction of a police drone over pagan revellers at Stonehenge’s summer solstice celebrations to rouse your average punter. And when the police killed, they killed with if not good reason, good excuses; the Brazilian electrician whose life ended abruptly on a London tube carriage after being executed at point-blank range by 12 shots to the head with expanding hollow-point bullets looked like a terrorist. There were intelligence failures. It was an honest mistake.
And when a pudgy, alcoholic newspaper vendor with nine kids found himself caught up in Operation Glencoe, a policing operation named after a massacre against protestors decrying the unrestrained venality of the nation’s banks, he was putting himself in harm’s way; if you wander insouciantly and with a lack of urgency in front of security officials intent on preventing a riot, you can expect to be repeatedly slammed to the ground as the Alsatians snarl and your abdominal walls begin to haemorrhage while you remonstrate feebly from a sitting position on the cold pavement, your skin turning grey. These things happen. No great loss in the grand scheme of things.
But the devil steps lightly over your threshold when invited, as the old superstition has it, although you will find it harder to get him to leave.
“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” queried Roman poet Juvenal: “Who guards the guards?” Largely quoted by those commenting on totalitarianism (or illustrating the notion of infinite regress), few know that Juvenal was actually lamenting the licentious behavior of his wife.
“I hear always the admonishment of my friends: “Bolt her in, constrain her!” But who will guard the guardians? The wife plans ahead and begins with them!”
For offer a temptation to a guard, whether it be a poet’s wife, legislative sanction or merely the technological capabilities to take what they want, and they will take it. And what we in Britain have now offered our “guardians” in the police and intelligence services is the knowledge of our movement on every road of the land in the form of a “panopticon highway“, a network of automatic number plate recognition cameras tracking each car. This, naturally, like shooting Brazilians and punching protestors, is for our own good:
“This development forms the basis of a 24/7 vehicle movement database that will revolutionise arrest, intelligence and crime investigation opportunities on a national basis”
Proclaim those behind the strategy rousingly. And Frank Whiteley, Chief Constable of Hertfordshire and chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers’ steering committee on automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) is ebullient on the move, telling the Independent that:
“Clearly there are values for this in counter-terrorism… The security services will use it for purposes that I frankly don’t have access to. It’s part of public protection. If the security services did not have access to this, we’d be negligent.”
But stop for a moment and consider the function creep. Anti-terrorism laws have been used widely on protestors. Drones used not just on Iraqi “insurgents” but druids peacefully observing the summer solstice. And ACPO note that:
“In addition to cross-checking each number plate against stolen and suspect vehicles held on the Police National Computer, the national data centre will also check whether each vehicle is lawfully licensed, insured and has a valid MoT test certificate.”
So if my car has a minor oil leak or a chipped windscreen and I have deferred getting it MOTd, the policing apparatus will know, they will be alerted by the eyes and ears of the database and stop and charge me.
When the reach and response of the police is this minute, this penetrating, it is time to wake up and begin questioning what, if this is the thin end of the wedge, the thick end might look like.
We’ve had a few pointers already and they disturb immensely: protestors whose vehicles were clocked by ANPR cameras at or near demonstrations have had their car details added to the database (under “subversive”?) and have been stopped and repeatedly harassed as they go about their business entirely legally.
Police have even been accused of effectively stopping people groundlessly merely to milk them for their DNA to add to another growing database. Being obstructive and failing the “attitude test” is likely to result in arrest sanctioned under anti-terrorism legislation.
Refuse to open your mouth and have a latex-gloved thug swab your gums and take your DNA after busting you for your pathetic, failing old car and you’re going to be called a security threat.
With security forces effectively being given whatever they want, as those who should watch them — our elected representatives — sit supine, how long will it be before, like every male Iraqi, we are having our retinas scanned by police with handheld biometrics devices for our protection? (U.S. officials are already pressing for the use of the technology back home in America). Ten years? Twenty?
And how long before not just our cars but our very bodies are tracked via implanted computer chips? After all, the arguments for such procedures are as impeccable as the need to track the movement of vehicles: medical records can be made easily and life-savingly accessible to medics; crimes will become that much easier to solve for people will be easy to place; and, timelessly, those of us who have nothing to hide would have nothing to fear.
Dystopian and far from possible? No, technology already more than six years old. In 2004 broadcaster MSNBC reported on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval for Applied Digital Solutions of Delray Beach, Fla., to market the VeriChip, an implantable computer chip about the size of a grain of rice, for medical purposes.
With the pinch of a syringe, the microchip is inserted under the skin in a procedure that takes less than 20 minutes and leaves no stitches. Silently and invisibly, the dormant chip stores a code that releases patient-specific information when a scanner passes over it.
It is telling that the human body, to our “guardians”, is just information needed on the database: on the battlefields of the Middle East, for example, a man’s eye is no longer the window to his soul; it is the information that reads “insurgent”, “enemy”, “wanted”, “combatant”, “suspect”, “collaborator”, or merely “unregistered adult male”. It is the IP address of the originator of a virus; it is the tattoo on the inner side of the upper left forearm; it is empty data. The scanner recognises no soul, no causes, just data to be logged.
Strikingly, given the bare facts, or “truth” that such technology reveals, we unleashed these machines and the soldiers holding them in dusty cities overseas, with a lie. It is a lie that has grown and mutated; a lie that sits, ignoble and unopposed among our elite. It is a lie that no longer needs a single liar to speak it, but one that has taken on its own form and returned home hungry; a lie that rots the heart of our body politic; a lie that cannot be refuted with simple, legalistic logic for it is no longer spoken in words but in actions. The lie is this: it is for your protection; it is for your own good; we watch over you and you need not watch over us in turn. You are free.
- The title of this blog post is a reference to Plato’s “gennaion pseudos” or noble lie:
“Everyone sees to it that the Guardian’s pursuit of truth can go on. But notoriously, that truth-seeking activity is a superstructure founded on mendacity… In a telling metaphor, Plato says that the rulers will need to administer some potent “drugs” in order to make this truth-seeking activity possible. The strongest drugs he has in mind are “falsehood and deception.” (Plato 1981, p. 459)
- For a provocative take on VeriChip and news of their recent merger with a credit rating agency, Wired wrote a good piece detailing the company’s ambitions:
VeriChip and its former owner Applied Digital have been drawing fire since 2004, when the FDA approved the rice-sized injectable RFID for human use. While the company primarily pushed the chip as part of a system to index medical records, Richard Sullivan, then-CEO of Applied Digital, had a penchant for wantonly confirming every nightmare of cybernetic social control.After 9/11, it was Sullivan who announced the VeriChip would be perfect as a universal ID to distinguish safe people from the dangerous ones. He dreamed of GPS-equipped chips being injected into foreigners entering the United States, prisoners, children, the elderly. He thought the VeriChip would be used as a built-in credit or ATM card.
- For more on the moral and philosophical issues behind the biotechnological reach of the police, Giorgio Agamben’s “No to bio-political tattooing” is thought-provoking and disturbing.
- And for further reading on Britain’s surveillance state, Henry Porter is always excellent.