Watching

If you haven’t already seen it, that’s the video of riot police beating Ian Tomlinson to the ground shortly before he died of a heart attack. It looks like a baton-happy and unprovoked assault, and if the brutality in the recording isn’t alarming enough on its own, the early omissions of the Met statement (which didn’t mention that he’d already had contact with riot police) are pretty troubling.

But the widely-watched recordings (first from the Guardian, then from Channel 4 News) seem to have forced the police to change their line rapidly: the Channel 4 report particularly, with its insistence on identifying characteristics of the policeman involved in the assault (left handed, partial view of face), may have precipitated the officer’s coming forward.

This is surveillance technology working as a check on state force. Usually, privacy debates settle into two futile positions: you’ve got nothing to worry about if you’ve got nothing to hide, vs I don’t want anyone spying on me. Obviously, these are worthless statements: everyone‘s got something they’d prefer not to have hauled over in public, and nobody can do anything to hold back the innovations that allow this to happen. If something exists, and people want it enough, it won’t be legislated out of existence.

What can be controlled, possibly, is the way the technology is used. While I was was skimming the tweets, I followed a link from @Z303 to this old, old (1996) Wired feature by David Brin. The author imagines two possible futures – both with extensive surveillance technology, one where  CCTV is used exclusively by police to monitor and control the behaviour of citizens, and one where monitoring devices are democratised so anyone can check on anyone:

Here, a late-evening stroller checks to make sure no one lurks beyond the corner she is about to turn.

Over there, a tardy young man dials to see if his dinner date still waits for him by the city hall fountain.

A block away, an anxious parent scans the area and finds which way her child has wandered off.

Over by the mall, a teenage shoplifter is taken into custody gingerly, with minute attention to ritual and rights, because the arresting officer knows the entire process is being scrutinized by untold numbers who watch intently, lest his neutral professionalism lapse.

The transparent society doesn’t feel like a comfortable place to live yet, but if the reporting of Ian Tomlinson goes on to encourage a full and open inquiry into the assault and the practice of “kettling“, then maybe it’s a safer place.