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Recording street conversation - Another step towards the British Total Surveillance Society

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Stephen Soldz
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The Total Surveillance Society is possibly about to get a new boost in Britain where police are considering posting microphones to identify and record aggressive street conversations, the Times reports:

Police and councils are considering monitoring conversations in the street using high-powered microphones attached to CCTV cameras, write Steven Swinford and Nicola Smith.

The microphones can detect conversations 100 yards away and record aggressive exchanges before they become violent.

The devices are used at 300 sites in Holland and police, councils and transport officials in London have shown an interest in installing them before the 2012 Olympics.

The interest in the equipment comes amid growing concern that Britain is becoming a "surveillance society". It was recently highlighted that there are more than 4.2m CCTV cameras, with the average person being filmed more than 300 times a day. The addition of microphones would take surveillance into uncharted territory.

Of course they claim that the devices will only pick up aggressive speech, such as when you argue with your husband or yell at your child:

The equipment can pick up aggressive tones on the basis of 12 factors, including decibel level, pitch and the speed at which words are spoken. Background noise is filtered out, enabling the camera to focus on specific conversations in public places.

We are reassured that the microphones won't be used to record "private conversations":

According to a spokesman for Richard Thomas, Britain's information commissioner, sound recorded by the cameras would be treated under British law in the same way as CCTV footage. Under the commissioner's code of practice, audio can be recorded for the detection, prevention of crime and apprehension and prosecution of offenders. It cannot be used for recording private conversations.

It is inevitable that, once they exist, the microphones will be used to record more and more conversation. "Abuses" will occur. Officials and the public will, initially, be "horrified." Then, of course, many will start arguing that the only way to assure security is to record all conversations.

We need to remember that modern computing technology increasingly allows the integration of information. Eventually the recorded voices will routinely be identified using voice recognition technology and recorded images identified via face recognition algorithms. Already, in Britain plans are underway to record all automobile travel with license plate recognition technology. We know the United States national Security Agency is currently monitoring millions, perhaps billions, of email communications. It is only a matter of a few years until government officials, marketers, or others will be able to track our every movement and action, all in the name of "security."

The writers of the great dystopian novels never dreamed that the Total Surveillance Society would be constructed with so little opposition. The next few years may be the last to stop this seemingly inevitable trend. It is hard to be optimistic. After all, a society in which the average person is filmed 300 times a day is one in which the spirit of liberty has long ceased to dwell.
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Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. He was a psychological consultant on two of (more...)
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