Friday, 18 September 2009

Review: Keith Laidler, ‘Surveillance State’

A person cognisant of the problem of the emerging British surveillance state and looking for a decent overview of the issue in book form could not do much better than pick up a copy of Keith Laidler’s Surveillance Unlimited (Icon Books: 2008). Dr. Laidler is an anthropologist by training and also an acclaimed wildlife filmmaker, he has written articles for the Guardian and Independent newspapers and New Scientist magazine.

Surveillance Unlimited is a big-picture analysis of the situation in Britain including comparisons with the totalitarian states of the last century; Bentham’s Panopticon, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Orwell’s 1984; ID cards; RFID; CCTV; the phasing out of the cash economy; email, phone, PC and banking security; the Echelon system; the trend toward supra-national and private control of these systems; 911, the ‘War on Terror’ and psychological warfare; the inadequacy of human rights and other legal protections; and options and opportunities for resistance. It is written in accessible and smooth prose and at 264 pages is a fairly quick read, taking me about three hours.

In the chapter on 911 the focus is on the BBC’s remarkable foreknowledge of the collapse of World Trade Center 7. I think it’s quite brave of Dr Laidler to write so extensively on this issue as so many people (have been trained to) automatically write off critics of the official story of 911 as kooks. My view is that to be aware of such glaring problems with the orthodox version and yet remain silent and uninterested is the true kookery. The final chapter, ‘What we can do to resist,’ is also brave, endorsing direct action and sabotage should democratic action fail to reverse course. He is surely right to say, though, that despite the fact that

[i]ndividuals and pressure groups can help cut holes in the surveillance web, [...] until public opinion sets its weight behind such lone voices, it will be difficult indeed to stem the tide.

The key problem - the deliberately incrementalist advance of the police-state - is described in an introductory chapter:

Place a frog in a saucepan of very hot water and its survival instincts are activated immediately: the back legs unflex explosively and throw the amphibian clear of danger.

Place that same frog in a second saucepan of lukewarm water. Safe in its chosen element, and comforted by the pleasant warmth of the surrounding medium, the amphibian will choose to remain where it is. Now gradually increase the temperature, degree by slow degree, and a strange thing happens. The frog gradually habituates to the increas­ing heat until it will happily tolerate the temperature which made it leap from the first saucepan.

Stranger still, the amphibian will choose to remain in the steadily heating liquid - provided the temperature is raised slowly enough - until, one by one, its vital func­tions begin to fail. Eventually, it is boiled alive: overcome by the stealthy approach of danger.

Politicians in Western societies have taken this lesson of incremental advance towards a chosen goal to their hearts. Denied the simplicities of rule by diktat, they have applied it to the human population under their charge in a bewil­dering variety of fields; from taxes and creeping privatisa­tion, through education, to increasing EU federalism and foreign invasions. Nowhere has this stealthy approach to increasing state control been more successful than in surveil­lance and the destruction of our liberties and privacy.

There are signs, though, that more and more of us are becoming aware of the problem -- including the fact that my library copy of this book has been issued frequently over the last year. Arguably, too, concern is strongest and most vocal amongst the young.

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