This morning I was prevented from photographing an advert inside the M&S “Simply Food” store in Brighton Railway Station. Apparently there’s a store policy preventing people taking pictures. That’s fair enough. Threatening to call the police before asking me to leave the store smacked of inadequate staff training more than anything more sinister. When I invited the man making that absurd threat to go ahead, he changed tack and said that photographs in Brighton station were not permitted. Really? Brighton station is world famous for its spectacular roof and is the first sight hundreds of thousands of visitors have on arrival in our city. It must have between photographed many thousands of times.
Following the terrorist attacks on 11th September in the USA, the western world has become truly paranoid about individuals taking photographs. Year on year, the restrictions and over zealous application of them has become ever more fanatical. Within days of the Occupy London protestors setting up camp in St Paul’s Churchyard, photographers were arrested for snapping the cathedral and other famous landmarks in the capital. Those arrested included established journalists, tourists and professional photographers. Long gone are the days when only a professional can afford a decent camera. The reasons for the arrests is always the same: security.
It beggars belief that anyone can truly believe that security will be compromised to any greater extent by conspicuous camera use, than it is by the relentless corporate image capturing, which the state does not challenge. Google has been allowed to photograph and publish every street and virtually every dwelling in the country. In fine detail, from ground level and from space. This visual reportage is free for anyone to look at, anytime, any place. It can be viewed from behind proxy servers or through the untrackable Tor Project. Plainly this represents more of a threat to domestic security than the picture postcard industry. Picking on individuals and not the powerful is petty and largely pointless. For a few hundred pounds anyone can buy a concealed camera for the lapel or the spectacles.
After decades of the police covering up their numbers and running amok at public demonstrations and triggering unnecessary riots (the Poll Tax riot in 1991 springs to mind), technology has caught up with events on the ground. In the UK, the police no longer attempt to stop people filming them. They understand that it would be a futile gesture, that any attempt to do so would only be fined by many more people and consequently they are obliged to tolerate people openly filming their Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT), who film everyone back in turn. Orwell was right to predict a future dominated by the all seeing camera but wrong to imagine that there would be only one pair of hands on the controls. This mass filming of everything may present a problem of scale for future historians but it helps civil society run much more smoothly. Whatever you do, wherever you go, in urban areas at least, there’s a strong chance that someone has a record of it. The anti-social, the criminals and all others who would otherwise prefer not to be caught can be brought to book much more easily. This doesn’t affect the most honourable tradition of public protest: those committed to civil disobedience want their actions known. Politics without publicity is pointless.
As with much else in the Digital Age, we’re in a transitional period. The demographical fact is that these technologies have emerged after much of our current senior management strata began their careers. Many of them probably just wish the internet would simply go away. They struggle with it, they make bad decisions based on fear and loathing.
These bad attitudes will pass with time. In times to come, you still won’t be able to photograph inside shops without permission but you won’t be patronised with the notion that you are a security risk. Whether we’ll be able to grapple with the real security risks – the unaccountable corporations controlling our data – remains to be seen.