Last week, sales of tabloids on the streets of London were boosted by the news that a French magazine had published photos of the Duchess of Cambridge – gasp – topless.
She and her husband the future King were relaxing in a “secluded chateau” for what they reasonably thought was a period of privacy by the pool, but it was violated by a photographer armed with a telescopic lens and a deal of patience. The self-righteous British media wouldn't touch the results, but their French publisher obliged by placing them on the Net anyway.
The pics are very grainy. Had the shutterbug wanted merely to photograph naked ladies, she could easily have traveled to a nudie beach on the Cote d'Azur and harvested hundreds in an hour, each crisply resolved with multiple megapixels. But that was not her aim; these images had value because the subjects were famous and expecting to be left alone. You and I may not be famous, but we generally share that expectation.
William is said to be furious, as well he may be; his own mother Diana died in 1997 while being pursued by photographers... in France. The couple say they will sue. L'entente cordiale may work in their favor, and I wish them all the luck they will surely need.
But there's a deep irony at work, which the mainstream media can be trusted not to see. William's grandmother is the nominal head of a series of governments that have festooned the streets of Britain with more CCTVs per person than any other country, and the roads with ever more intrusive speed-trap cameras. If you leave home, you leave privacy behind. Now, the Queen reigns, she doesn't rule, but nobody has more influence; and if she wanted to persuade her ministers to take down that ubiquitous network of spies, I'm quite sure she could manage it. So now, in a sense, the prime peepers have been peeped upon.
Worse is probably in plan, thanks to the FedGov's commissioning of a nasty little bird-like spy. It was developed by Aerovironment, no doubt eager for juicy government contracts (what a positive, peaceful name!). And according to defense expert Peter Singer, “You can use these things anywhere, put them anyplace, and the target will never even know they're [sic] being watched.” Just imagine what fun that private, for-profit spy in France would have had with one of these hummingbirds, flying it around the chateau pool, snapping pics of the future Queen with even fewer clothes! Had she done so, her remote camera would have been in the airspace above private property and so the Duke's lawsuit might have gained extra clout – but so far these bugs are reserved for the exclusive use of governments, and those can be sued only in one of their own courts, if at all. If one should spy on you or me, we'd need a heap more legal luck than William and Kate.
Last weekend my 6-year-old grandson showed me his chopper-flying skills with a new toy, an actual flying helicopter – about the same size as this birdie spy. Powered by a rechargeable battery, a remote controller sent it zooming up, forward and sideways, with two counter- rotating lift rotors; an amazing engineering achievement, all for the price of a birthday present. It carried no camera (did it?) but that would not be hard to add. So the cost of those new government spy-cams is likely to be quite low enough to ensure that before long we can all be watched by swarms of them. In that case, there might be a good new business opportunity in the manufacture of birdshot.
To what purpose, this ever-expanding network of surveillance?
It adds video to sound and text. Ever since the mid-'90s when the Net became widely used, governments have striven to capture whatever we say, by phone and email, and ours stepped around the supposed protection of the Constitution (it doesn't authorize spying, therefore they “cannot” do it) quite easily by spying instead on foreigners' communications, bribing their governments to spy on Americans, and then exchanging the results; this was known as the Echelon system. Pretense was later discarded by the Patriot Act.
But cameras add an extra dimension. It's as important to government as TV is to radio, and as video is to a web page. They bring a new degree of depth to the perception of what we are all doing. And why not? If they need to know what we write and say to each other, why should they not fill out their understanding of what we mean, by watching our body language as we say it? The 1998 movie “Enemy of the State,” reviewed by Michael Rozeff, may have overstated a little the government's ability to focus on an individual's every action in that year, but I wouldn't presume it's not a fair portrayal of current capability. But why exactly do they need to know anything at all about what we say and where we go and how fast we get there?
If any government spokescritter stoops to answer such an impertinent question, he will no doubt mutter “protection” as if that were government's raison d'etre. Of course, it is no such thing; the real purpose of power is power. Surveillance merely enhances that power – for knowledge is power; the more knowledge, the more power. The appetite government people have for power – over you and me – is insatiable; it has no limits yet detected. So one way or another, the more detailed a... picture it can build up of every individual in its domain, the stronger will become any government's ability to control every individual.
The really ominous bit is that after all this was rather accurately foreseen by George Orwell as long ago as 1948, his books are regularly on the reading lists in the government's own schools! It's as if they are saying, to each rising generation, “You know this, and we know you know it, and we're thrusting your own knowledge in your face to show you that we do not care! Resistance is futile!”