Well, I might already have one overlooking my house somewhere from the front or from the back garden, which I may not know of. BBC reports that UK is already “the most surveilled country” among the Western industrialised states. The news piece is based on the Surveillance Society report, which can be viewed here.
The two worst countries in the 36-nation survey are Malaysia and China, and Britain is one of the bottom five with “endemic surveillance”.
Apparently, there is one camera for every 14 individuals in the UK. And it is not just through the CCTVs that we are being watched. According another news report on BBC, we could not only be watched from CCTVs but could also be monitored through our credit cards, smart travel cards or even through our store loyalty cards. Here though, I am not going to talk about technology-based surveillance and monitoring. I am going to talk here about the old-fashioned spying – surveillance and monitoring of the activities of an individual by another person, usually an agent of the state or other surveillance agency, or now, as it has been suggested, by other individuals/citizens who come in frequent touch with the individuals being monitored.
So, here is what I am talking about:
A couple of days ago, I had invited a fellow Nepali PhD student for dinner and he told me about this “strange” news he had read on our university’s student newspaper. The “strange” news was that of a leaked memo sent by the UK Govt’s Department for Education and Skills (DFES) to all the universities across the UK to monitor “Asian-looking” students or those with “Muslim-sounding names”. According to the news, the memo was supposed to be circulated to all the university lecturers and support staff “encouraging them to monitor the activities of Muslim and “Asian-looking” students”. Why? Because, according to the government, these are the students who are most likely to be radicalised into terrorism or be involved in terrorist activities themselves. Being a South-Asian myself, and a very “Asian-looking” at that, I was shocked hearing the news. I checked the university’s student newspaper myself, and the original Guardian news report to make sure what my friend had told me was in fact true. Although the leaked memo was first published late in October, it seems to be making headlines at our university now. “Mid-term blues”? May be.
As much shocked I was reading that news, I think I had heard enough speeches pointing to that direction in recent weeks, mostly by the Home Secretary, and just a couple of days ago by the head of the MI5, to sort of expect from this government to plan something stupid like that. What could we expect from the government that seems to be going backward rather than forward when it comes to handling issues regarding religion, racial tensions, ethnic minorities, and the immigrants? We probably already have enough CCTVs on our campuses that can monitor the movements of students anyway. If there are any “suspecting activities”, I’m sure the campus security people looking at those CCTV captures will notify the relevant authorities. So why does the government want to go a step further, and ask lecturers and campus support staff to spy on their own students? If I remember correctly, a month or so ago, the Home Secretary went to a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood in London to ask parents (Muslim parents that is) to “monitor their children’s activities” – to spy on them to be blunt. So, looking back at that incident, it shouldn’t surprise us actually to know of their plan to ask lecturers to “monitor their “Asian-looking” students’ activities”. When I was reading this news report, I was wondering how “Asian-looking” lecturers would have reacted had they actually received this memo.
Now, coming back to my house and “my quota” of CCTV, I share a house with two other Nepalis and a white student. So our house is one with a majority of “Asian-looking” students. I think this government or whoever is monitoring the “suspicious-looking individuals” across the UK has two options, in addition to the technology-based surveillance (CCTVs, Credit Cards, mobile phones and such) – (i) ask our predominantly white neighbours to spy on us, or better still (ii) ask our fourth house mate – a white person, to “monitor our activities”. Would this government dare do that? If the leaked memo that outlined asking lecturers to monitor their own students was in fact true and was readied for circulation, then we shouldn’t be surprised if the next move will be to ask “white citizens” to monitor their “Asian-looking” counterparts. I wonder if that would be a paid job in our case – to spy on three Asian-looking students living together. If it is then I think I’ll be happy if our white house mate got that job – he is also a student, so I suspect, in need of extra income like most of us students are! (OK, before I move further, here, I would like to apologise to my “white” house mate if my writing this, talking about him as a “potential” spy for the government, causes any offence. I am just trying to make my point, and to illustrate where this government could go in terms of their “paranoiac” effort to find “the enemy within”, as Prof Afshar mentions in response to the news about this leaked memo. Nothing personal against you my friend!)
As for our quota of CCTV, I don’t think any of us in our house would be surprised if we were to really get a CCTV in front of our house, especially after seeing reports on all these leaked memos and the Home Secretary’s recent speeches. And would I be happy if by any chance we did get a CCTV camera or some other surveillance camera in front of our house? To be honest, I would love that. We are often disturbed late at night by drunken, unruly teenagers from the neighbourhood – it seems the road in front of our house is their favourite hangout. Although my bedroom is at the back of the house, where the noise from the front road can’t really be heard, my housemates with bedrooms at the front of the house are often awaken by those teenagers late at night. If there was a camera, I’m sure they wouldn’t find the place very attractive anymore. I think they probably chose this place precisely for that reason alone, as it is actually hard to find an area without the reach of a CCTV camera now a days. Who knows, even with a camera in sight, they might continue to show why they (I mean here the British teenagers in general, an not only those of our neighbourhood!) came out among the worst teenagers in Europe in terms of their (social) behaviour on a recent survey!
So far, I haven’t seen any signs of us three Asian-looking students being spied upon, or may be we are but just not aware of it. Actually isn’t that what spying is all about? To monitor an individual or individuals without them knowing that they are being “watched”. And by the way, we have yet to receive a CCTV or any other surveillance camera in front of our house, or again may be the surveillance cameras are there and we just don’t know of their existence. Are we being watched? The questions remains…