NOT too many tears for Hatt Mancock in this parish, I expect. But in another part of your body politic, surely you felt a twinge of anxiety? Does the idea of your every office behaviour being watched by an Orwellian camera on the ceiling not discomfit you, even a little?
At the moment of writing, this story – a combination of hands-everywhere farce and deep-state machinations – was sprawling in all directions. Geopolitical fingers are being pointed: both at the US security firm Emcor, and the Chinese camera manufacturer Hikvision, each involved in servicing the camera device.
(But what twirly-moustached dastard turned the camera round from its normal physical position, the better to observe potential smoochings? Mua-ha-ha-ha.)
As to who might have leaked the images (assuming the newspaper’s sources won’t be revealed), the conjectures are bad enough. The court politics of an impregnable Tory government, its ministers befouled in corrupt procurement scandals, is the obvious frame for this. Hancock is the fall-guy for the Cabinet’s collective Covid incompetence.
Some of those most loudly gunning for him have, shall we say, a certain (or proclaimed) skill in hacking technological networks …
But there is a big blootering irony to Hancock’s downfall. This is the health secretary whose biggest pandemic failure was the inability to set up a “track and trace” system. It implied huge levels of surveillance and monitoring, requiring a system and a public both capable and willing to make it work.
Yet how easy it was to download groping videos, from an unnoticed camera in a minister’s private office, and distribute widely for political scandal.
So, all of us are not surveilled equally, and to equal ends. But even if we just focus on cameras, there is no doubt we are being constantly, obsessively watched.
The numbers, when you look at them, are a bit bonkers. By last year, Scottish local authorities alone had mounted 12,170 cameras (this excludes devices in commercial properties). An academic guesstimate for the total UK-wide number starts at five million and rising. This is “huge and ubiquitous in a way that’s quite unprecedented, and that raises interesting and important questions about how that data and footage is used,” said a Professor Fussey from Essex University this week.
Indeed they are. What to say when a doorbell camera helps to trace the last steps of the murdered Sarah Everard? Or when footage helps identify the street harassers of the UK’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty and the Newsnight journalist Nick Watt? Or when cyclists and motorists capture footage of what they regard as reckless road behaviour, from their head-cams and car-cams?
Yet when biometric software is applied to this material, we are in a weird political situation. It’s one where democracies tiptoe onto the grounds of autocracies. UK police departments are currently using live facial recognition, voice recognition, and “gait analysis” (yes, your walk is a unique signature).
You may (or may not) be glad to hear that a significant Scotland-rUK divide has opened up about the use of these technologies.
A cross-party Scottish Parliament report from early last year put a halt to Police Scotland’s planned 2026 adoption of this live surveillance software.
They cited research on its fundamental inaccuracy, and the potential for prejudice in its selection of live suspects. It was also regarded as involving a “radical departure” from the tradition of policing-by-consent in Scotland.
But according to the Holyrood report, it seems Police Scotland do upload their criminal image banks to the UK Police National Database (which the UK surveillance software draws on). We are asked to accept that an elaborate protocol of cancelling such images, according to the criminal status of the subject, happens appropriately between the two forces.
Hmm. As Professor Fussey says, “the question becomes about trust and whether you’re not being singled out or followed. And as the case last weekend showed, that trust is a bit misplaced at the moment”.
ARE we anywhere near some lurid political-thriller scenarios? Where an “arrestable” with a history of direct action (be they XR, or Scottish anti-Trident, or whatever) is detected publicly by techno-surveillance, and bundled off the street into a van for questioning/intimidation?
This is one benchmark that the Kenmure Street anti-deportation street protests set.
It’s now credible that the sleekit operations of the disciplinary state (this time, Westminster in Scotland) can be highlighted and resisted, by vigilant and activist-enough communities.
The display of such community power will clearly have its effect – particularly on a Scottish Parliament that’s already doubtful about the credibility of such technologies.
So, although the Hancock affair – “Matt finished”, “How can he cling on?”, etc, chortle – has its anti-Tory pleasures, it leaves us hanging on the bigger issues. Especially about how we should wisely handle this super-surveillant society we live in at the moment.
What about the profound demands for monitoring and modelling that the pandemic asks of us? Do we have to become much more subtle in our categorisations of surveillance?
The right not to be “gait-analysed” by public cameras as you wander round a city centre, as a free citizen, may be one thing. But asserting your supreme, egoistic right to resist any health system that asks you to modify your behaviour – based on epidemiological data that could save lives – is quite another.
This is the fascinating point made throughout tech theorist Benjamin Bratton’s new book The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World. His beef is with what he calls a “negative biopolitics”. This is a long leftist tradition, stemming from Michel Foucault, which assumes that data-capture of human behaviours and states oppresses our self-creating individuality.
Bratton asks whether both the mutations of the pandemic, and a disrupted biosphere, challenge that knee-jerk subjective response. The “sensing and modelling” of our environment, and of ourselves, is what we now have to subject ourselves to – that is, if we want to stay ahead of unpredictable waves of ecological and viral crisis.
The big question isn’t so much Professor Fussey’s one about trust, but about politics. This most dramatic of eco-challenges asks us to let systems intimately monitor ourselves and our community. So how do we assume responsibility for this process? How do we consciously design these systems better, improve their accountability?
Bratton shoots for the skies, and asks us to think about a “positive biopolitics” at the global level. What do we want this “planetary-level computation” to be for? What’s its purpose?
Do we allow it just to be used by info-corporations to “individuate” us – their social media anticipating and shaping our every whim and want? Or should we demand that this mighty smartness is put at the service of genuine sustainability and carbon-conscious living?
Maybe these huge machines of “sensing and modelling” should just as clearly inform us about what we should not do, and provide us with viable alternatives, than merely provoke the usual consumerist itchiness.
Maybe Covid will ultimately bring the idea of a rampant, ties-free individualism, wilfully ignorant of the deep bio-social connections between us, to an end.
Who’d have thought that The Mancock would lead us to such elemental considerations? Maybe he should turn to Bratton’s book during his political convalescence. Somehow, with his behaviour burned into our brains in ways that can never be unseen, I doubt it.