Monday, December 05, 2005

The Worm That Turned (and was caught on CCTV)

Looks like Tony Blair wants to push CCTV into the EU, but is coming up against resistance by France. The case is interesting because of the shared effects of surveillance systems, and parallels with - and contrasts to - the motivations of the web of cameras that covers Britain today.

Blair's reason for cameras (as we have in the House of Commons and Lords presently) is that "opening up lawmaking to increased public scrutiny would help to address the growing gap between European citizens and Brussels."

However, on the counter, French officials "fear that the council could cease to operate effectively. Sensitive decisions would simply be taken in the corridors or outside the ministerial chamber by civil servants, they say."

Whether or not British "decision-making" has been affected after the introduction of cameras is another discussion. For now, I just want to bring attention to this continual clash between accountability, and the ability to make decisions based on confidential truth. We've seen this before, in the guise of OGC reviews for ID Cards. The UK government should be commended for opening up the 2 Houses so well, but it should also be noted that this is to some much extent simple lip service to openness, and that unless the idea is taken yet further, then yes, all that's achieved is a diversion. This is pretty much the same argument "against" CCTV as a placebo for street crime - merely opening people up to observation does nothing to address the values that we would prefer to be inherent in the system.

In a publically-accountable democracy, there will continue to be this idea of "efficiency" vs transparency. I fear, however, that unless we start to push through a culture of transparency and responsibility - beginning with making discussions open to scrutiny, et al - then all we'll get is a dud, biased system in which we have efficiency at the cost of impartial decisions.

I know the French haven't really been on the surveillance bandwagon (up until recently, that is), but that shouldn't stop us from recognising when technology can be used to give more access, and more control, back to the (increasingly aptly-named) "public".

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