Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

I noted yesterday that rumors are sweeping the libertarian wing of the British blogosphere concerning the official attitude towards mass demonstrations that are predicted to disrupt this week’s G20 summit in London.

Like much of the news coming out of the UK these days, all the speculation about the onset of government repression seems to be the stuff of paranoia, not to be taken seriously by sober-minded people.

And yet…

The ominous news just keeps rolling in. Today comes word that the Westminster council’s CCTV cameras — part of the infamous and ubiquitous network of British video surveillance — may have to be shut down. In fact, if the shutdown occurs on schedule — and I can’t find a news article that updates the Guardian story — the cameras have already been turned off by the time you read this. And, in one of those uncanny coincidences that make a paranoid’s eyes light up, they are the very same cameras that will be recording the crowds in locations where the largest and most vigorous of the G20 demonstrations are likely to take place.

This sudden decision is mandated by a law that goes into effect on April 1, and the CCTV cameras in the Westminster network are out of compliance with the law because the resolution of their video image is too narrow by 16 pixels.

In other words, of all the local jurisdictions from one end of Britain to the other, surveillance cameras in the most sensitive part of London during an acknowledged public-safety emergency are to be idled because of a 16-pixel technicality.

No wonder the bells of paranoia are ringing.

Here’s the story from the Grauniad:

Ahead of G20 Summit, Council Told to Switch Off Illegal £15m CCTV Network

The security operation at this week’s G20 summit was thrown into chaos last night when it emerged that the entire network of central London’s wireless CCTV cameras will have to be turned off because of a legal ruling.

The Department for Transport (DfT) has ruled that Westminster council’s mobile road cameras — a third of the authority’s CCTV network — “do not fully meet the resolution standards required” and must be switched off by midnight tomorrow.

The blackout begins on the eve of the summit, when world leaders arrive in the capital and protesters take to the streets.

The council only discovered last week that images from its newly installed £15m traffic cameras do not meet the quality required under the Traffic Management Act, which comes into force on 1 April.

In an urgently drafted letter seen by the Guardian and hand-delivered to the transport secretary, Geoff Hoon, on Friday, the council warns its entire network of wireless cameras will need to be shut down unless the minister finds a way to give special dispensation. “This would have a serious impact on our ability to manage our road network safely, as well as impeding our community protection efforts,” the letter states.
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It adds: “We are seeking authorisation from DfT as a matter of urgency to enable Westminster to continue using its digital CCTV network.”

The 60 cameras in question use the latest digital technology and transmit images using Wi-Fi. While they are primarily for traffic enforcement, according to the council the cameras are “an essential additional tool” to tackle crime and disorder, and have been fixed to strategic locations across the capital ahead of the summit.

The 24-hour live footage from the cameras, which monitor roads around the West End, Belgravia, Trafalgar Square, Knightsbridge, Oxford Street and London’s main bridges, is also accessible to police and the intelligence services.


“Frankly, it couldn’t have come at a worse time,” a source said. “These are not just parking enforcement cameras, they’re for public order and we’ve got the G20 world leaders coming. This is a complete disaster.”

Under the legislation, traffic cameras must be capable of recording at 720 x 576 pixels, an analogue broadcast standard.

Westminster’s wireless network of road cameras, introduced last year, is the only fully digital traffic enforcement system operating in the UK, and is regarded as one of the most advanced in the world. But its picture quality is only 704 x 576 pixels. The DfT’s enforcement branch, the Vehicle Certification Agency, has ruled it does not comply with the law.

DfT lawyers were last night frantically exploring a way to exempt Westminster from the legislation. A department statement said: “To ensure local authorities have a fair and transparent way of detecting unlawful drivers, any recording device must meet minimum requirements.”

The council last night confirmed that — barring an 11th-hour U-turn — it would have to switch off the network tomorrow to comply with the act. [emphasis added]

This story hasn’t been widely reported — the Guardian was the first major outlet to run with it, and all the other versions that I could find are basically the same.

So, to sum up: a devastating problem suddenly emerges, because of a law that just happens to come into effect on April 1, and just happens to shut down CCTV where the demos are scheduled, and then an official communication about it just happens to fall into the hands of the Guardian.

I’m prepared to hear some non-paranoid, plausible explanation for all this. I’m willing to be talked back into my accustomed sanity.

If the whole thing is some simple bureaucratic stupidity, then an emergency exemption will surely be enacted to allow the surveillance to continue during this, the crown jewel of all the worthless baubles in Gordon Brown’s worm-eaten treasure chest.

But if not…

Whatever monstrous events occur in Trafalgar Square or on London Bridge during the next three days, there will be no official visual record of them.

Hat tip: Gaia.


Fortress said...

No official record, but there will be a record to be sure. If anyone has any SD camcorders, now would be the time to break them out. The media can be hidden in all sorts of places and probably smuggled out far easier than tape.

X said...

Theyv'e shut those cameras down before to avoid giving people a view of may day demonstrations and things. I'm not sure why they do it. It was always "technical difficulties" back then so the use of a legal instrument is new.

thll said...

Have you never heard of coincidence? Then what about this one: the 'word verification' for this comment was "ballses"! No kidding.

thll said...

It's hard to believe that the official tale is the real tale. That said I can't think of any reason why they'd want them turned off. The MSM will be there, people will make their own videos, the police will film the event... I don't get it.

Gort said...

Never fear, truncheons and water cannons work without video documentation.

Oh, I forgot, this is London where the police will politely argue the demonstrators back into civility.