Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Another Step Toward the Surveillance Society

Originally, I was going to write about Toronto cyclists flouting traffic laws, but James Nicoll made me aware of something with rather darker implications for society. On July 23rd the Daily Express, a British tabloid that seems to write about the same sort of things as the Toronto Sun, ran Alison Little's article "SIN BINS FOR WORST FAMILIES." These "sin bins" are the brainchild of Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families in the current British government, and will place twenty thousand "problem families" under round-the-clock surveillance within their homes.

Let me say that again - the British government is no longer content with placing CCTV cameras in essentially every outdoor spot that can accomodate a camera, it is now extending its surveillance to the privacy of the home.

"They will be monitored," the article reads, "to ensure that children attend school, go to bed on time, and eat proper meals." While I'm sure that some parents would appreciate - nay, clamor for - the Voice of Authority booming down from On High for little Wossisname to get to sleep at a reasonable hour, this is yet another example of a government pushing a project through without any concern for the implications down the road - or, if you're authoritarian-minded, another example of a government turning up the heat on the frog by half a degree. More likely, though, this is an example of politicians looking at the moment and not sparing a thought for any of the potential consequences.

I understand that this is, on its face, an earnest attempt to mitigate social ills. Nevertheless, this sets an extremely dangerous precedent, regardless of the good intentions that created it. Once a government has been granted a power, it is loath to hand it back. For example, the income tax wasn't introduced in Canada until 1917, when it was instituted on a "temporary" basis to finance the First World War, and the government's debt load led to it becoming a permanent fixture.

Governments run on control just as much as they run on money. When all else is stripped away, control is the fundamental purpose of every government, control and organization and demarcation. I don't think there's any reason to believe that with this "foot in the door" validating remote surveillance within one's home, the future will see anything other than an expansion of the program.

What concerns me is that this being done to assist "problem families." Sure, in this context that's used to mean "chaotic" families with children at risk of falling into a life of crime, but who's to say that will always be the case? What if in the future, a "problem family" is one that isn't sufficiently religious or patriotic? Governments will use these tools to their own ends, and we can't blithely assume that every government's end will be a gain for society as a whole.

Is this just a rumor? It hasn't been getting much coverage outside the British tabloid scene, so maybe - but the crux of it is that given what the British government's done before, the whole thing is perfectly plausible to me. I've probably said it before, but I'll say it again - I'm damn glad my family left the United Kingdom in the 1960s. It seems like every week I read a story that suggests the incubator of modern democracy is turning its back on it.

I got through this entire post without saying the word "telescreen" once - wait... god dammit

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