Tiffany Jenkins: Picture a monitored dystopia

Police officers across London are wearing video cameras when responding to emergency calls. Picture: Getty
Police officers across London are wearing video cameras when responding to emergency calls. Picture: Getty
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SCOTRAIL’S decision to pilot body cameras on staff is a step towards a society none of us want, argues Tiffany Jenkins.

The central idea of The Circle, the dystopian novel by Dave Eggers about an eponymous social media company with the mission to make everything visible and which takes over the world, is that when everyone is always open to everyone else, autonomy is crushed and intimacy eroded.

ScotRail staff are not even the police. They are not subject to the same checks and regulations.

The Circle’s buildings are made of glass. People don’t keep secrets – “secrets are lies”. Instead, everything is on show – “sharing is caring”. One major benefit of all this, the lack of privacy, is a fall in the crime rate. Indeed, “SeeChange” cameras are planted everywhere in order to achieve this.

One of the company’s Three Wise Men explains: “This is the ultimate transparency. No filter. See everything. Always.”

A politician wears a camera to disclose to her constituents everything she does. By the end of the novel, the central character, Mae, becomes “transparent,” wearing a camera that films her every move.

Needless to say, The Circle isn’t cheery reading. As with much science fiction, it contains a warning. Mae’s life becomes shallow, she loses her friends and family.

She loses her ability to critically reflect on who she is and what she does. She can no longer experience and benefit from solitude. And no one trusts the politician who is constantly filmed, as it increases suspicion, suggesting she has something to hide.

But perhaps it does need saying: being filmed all the time might appear to bring advantages – it could prevent criminal acts, or record one happening which could be prosecuted later – but we would lose a great deal in the process.

I say this because we are heading in a similar direction, where we are constantly on camera. One proposal that isn’t science fiction is the use of body cameras, by the police in America and various places across Britain in tests, and now, in Scotland, where there is to be a trial of body cameras for staff on ScotRail services, in locations that include Aberdeen, Ayrshire, Dunbartonshire, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and Paisley. Apparently, these cameras will improve security. In 200 stations and on the train, employees will wear them. The claim is that this will deter anti-social behaviour and footage could be used as evidence in prosecutions.

The use of body cameras by ScotRail staff may appear a minor infringement on our liberties compared to the mass surveillance by GCHQ, or any of the recents limits on our freedoms and privacy, of which there are many. But it is not a negligible issue.

The use of body cameras by ScotRail staff is worrying because this is about our everyday lives: waiting around, getting on and off a train, buying a ticket, asking if there are any delays.

The most ordinary behaviour is now subject to additional monitoring – there is already CCTV everywhere you look, walk and sit.

ScotRail staff are not even the police. They are not subject to the same checks and regulations. Nor do they have the same job description as an officer of the law. Train staff are supposed to sell and check tickets, inform us of the most convenient route to our destination, answer questions, serve snacks and drinks, and ensure a smooth and efficient service.

Or so I thought. Maybe I am wrong and they are now supposed to fight – even prevent – crime. And not even crime: these cameras will be used, it is said, to combat the more broadly and subjectively defined, “anti-social behaviour” which can mean anything.

ScotRail have said that staff will only turn cameras on when doing so could help prevent, or document an incident and we will know when they do: a yellow symbol will be visible on the front of the devices when video and audio is being recorded. But preventing an incident is quite loosely defined – it hasn’t happened, yet, after all.

It is also the case that these cameras operate on a looped pre-recording system which means footage is available from 20 seconds before the device is turned on. I think we should just assume it’s filming much of time.

Is there justification for this measure? Is there is a crime wave that needs to be tackled? No. In fact, crime has fallen, for over a decade, on these services.

Jacqueline Dey, ScotRail’s operations and safety director, said: “While crime has fallen for ten consecutive years on Scotland’s railways, we’re determined to make rail travel feel even more comfortable for customers and staff.

“Body-worn cameras are one element of this ongoing commitment, and we are confident that customers will find them to be a reassuring presence.”

But being watched all the time, by CCTV, and now by body cameras with built in audio, does not make me feel “even more” comfortable or reassured. Nicer seats might, so would fewer delays and more frequent trains, but that’s not on offer. These cameras make me feel as if I and my fellow passengers are a threat and need to be watched. They create unease.

This kind of transparency – when cameras are everywhere – means abandoning the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. It means assuming the public are just criminals-in-waiting, all on the verge of behaving in an “anti-social” manner (and you have to ask, isn’t it anti-social to film us all the time?), instead of thinking that, on the whole, we can rely on each other to go about our daily lives without doing anything particularly wrong.

It is sometimes said that body cameras for the police or transport staff protects the public, that they will prevent the police or, in this case, the train staff from behaving badly. But this treats these professionals, as a matter of course, as if they cannot be trusted to do their job. It suggests officers and train staff are a threat, which is also not reassuring for anyone – it furthers fear.

Body cameras will not improve relations between train staff and customers.

It will increase hostility and uncertainty. Far from creating a more comfortable environment, we are creating our own dystopia.

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