The Six Walls of Surveillance

I came across a fascinating article recently by writer/artist/technologist James Bridle in which he details his attempts to photograph each of the (visible) surveillance cameras within the London Congestion Charge Zone. It’s part of a project that’s “an investigation into paranoia, electromagnetism and infrastructure” which he’s calling The Nor.

Now there’s a project scope that you don’t come across every day.

I’m not going to attempt to summarise the post here as he’s a great writer and you really should just read it for yourself. But in amongst the tales of being restrained by both private and public security interests during his meander around the City, there’s a fascinating comparison of how physical walls have been used for security (in order to keep enemies out) with intangible walls that are increasingly being relied upon as the years progress (in order to surveil those already inside).

To explain, he describes the six ages of the London wall in that area as follows:-

  • The First Wall: built late 2nd century by Romans, ultimately it forced everyone to access the city via seven narrow gates.
  • The Second Wall: slightly wider in scope, the Ring of Steel was built 1800 years later in response to the Baltic Exchange and Bishopsgate bombings.
  • The Third Wall: with the Congestion Charge Zone in 2003, the wall lost most of its physical constraints as the boundary expanded from the Square Mile to include the West End, powered in part by the introduction of Automated Number Plate Recognition (with records being captured and held without expiry date outside the protection of personal data legislation).
  • The Fourth Wall: to be brought in electronically via transponders carried in cars themselves (similar to this in Stockholm).
  • The Fifth Wall: the tracking of people via mobile phones (via ‘spy bins’ and shopping centres).
  • The Sixth Wall: the round-the-clock tracking of personal data brought by the wearables revolution.

As James himself comments:

“…education and freedom of choice are central to the issue. My wider concern here is that there is little education on this issue and few good ideas about how to educate. Without a deeper understanding of such systems, there is no meaningful choice (or consent) available to most people”

Privacy, security and surveillance continue to shape up to be one of the most important issues for us all moving forwards and, as ever, the UK capital continues to lead the way, for better or worse.

So it seems somewhat apt to finish with a video from one of my favourite artists here, Anais Mitchell, with a song from her ridiculously good Hadestown LP.

What’s it called? Yup, you guessed it: “The Wall”.

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