Big Brother strategy

There are some 4.2 million closed-circuit TV (CCTV) cameras in Britain. That is one for every 14 people. You are literally filmed hundreds of times every day in London.

The French government wants to see more of its citizens too. To do this, Interior Minister, Michèle Aliot Marie, says she will triple the number of cameras now in place. Although the police are candid as to the exact number of cameras in Paris, estimates say there are 30 thousand placed in 2600 strategic sties.* The Paris Prefect, Michel Gaudin, said two years ago that the city is in desperate need of greater video surveillance because “Paris is on the front line in risk of terrorism.”

In pure Sarkozy tradition, the government is using the emotion of the moment to push through with a program people would normally be hostile to. It began two weeks ago, when an Italian tourist fell down the stairs of the metro as two men stole his bag. He died two days later. Of course, the Minister pointed out there were no CCTVs in the station.

I have not yet understood how cameras prevent terrorist attacks. The cameras in London did not stop Islamic fundamentalists bent on dying themselves in the blasts. But they have helped Police identify demonstrators. They just have not been all that good at identifying the real ‘casseurs’, a term used to describe those who come to protest marches to break windows and burn cars. Those guys usually wear hoods and masks.

The government says the CCTVs are there for our protection but in the words of Rapper KRS-1: “You are paid to protect us, but who’s gonna protect us from you?

Another piece of news this week makes me even more suspicious of the motives to monitor me. The new metro pass called Nivigo is a permanent magnetic card with photo and chip. It is paid through direct bank debit, monthly. You have to pass it before the electronic-eye even when getting on the bus or risk a fine if the ‘controlleurs’ discover you did not validate it when boarding.

And every time you ‘validater’ your card, your name, address, the place you got on and the time you got on are sent to the Transport Authority’s central computer. “It’s only kept for forty eight hours,” they say. Forty eight hours! Why? And let us not forget the Transport Authority also has your banking details. According to the officials, they keep this information to make sure nobody is using a stolen pass at the same time you are using yours. This explanation does not hold water.

When I had my pass stolen, I went to the metro and they issued me a new one straight away and electronically cancelled the old one. And even if the old one could be used, the only thing they can do is register when and where it was used. Why should they want to know when and where I get on public transport?

I find this excessive invasion and it does not make me feel the least bit safer. It is the same for listening to phones without a warrant or surveying my MSN conversations. The French police already have other arms at their disposal. They can stop you any time, any where, without probable cause to suspect, and demand to see your I.D. papers.** If they are not satisfied, they can take you to the station, without arresting you, and make you wait the time it takes to check. This is a great ploy for bored cops who want to get out of the cold. I.D. controls are also a great way to hassle disgruntled youth, making them even more disgruntled. It was fleeing an I.D. check that a youth died electrocuted which sparked the month long suburb riots in France in November 2005. The kids did not have their papers with them and did not want to spend hours in the station waiting for their parents to come and get them.

It is also true that they sometimes do catch big fish with I.D. checks such as the Red Brigades Marina Petrella who was arrested yesterday when she went to the Police station to deal with a small car accident. Her name came up on the computer screen as wanted in Italy. The 53 year-old Italian was sentenced in absentia to life in prison for the 1981 murder of a police commissioner. She had been living in France for 20 years.

The British, like the Untied States, do not have a national identification card. They are now thinking of creating one.

*This figure does not include private video surveillance cameras and which are accessible to the Police upon request.

** Everybody in France has a identification card issued by the government authority, usually the police, which has photo, name, date and place of birth, home address and so on.