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Updated: 2 months 2 weeks ago

Society under Surveillance

Sun, 24/09/2017 - 5:53pm

I sent a letter about the following incident to the editor of Sydney Morning Herald. Of course they didn't publish it.  At 9pm on Thursday 22 June at Bankstown station I was taken off the train to Liverpool by police. They searched my bag and me. Reason? They said a guard saw someone of my description put something down the front of my pants. 

They took away my backpack and an officer put it on a seat on the platform and looked inside. Meanwhile they took me up in the lift into a room on the station concourse. About six of them surrounded me, ready to jump on and subdue me at the first sign of resistance.  They asked whether I was wearing underwear, before making me undo my pants so that they could have a bit of a look.  (What the guard had probably seen on the train's surveillance camera was me putting something, my wallet or handkerchief perhaps, in my pocket, at the front of my pants.)  They did a cursory rather than thorough search, suggesting that they didn't expect to actually find something, such as an illicit drug, weapon or explosive, but rather were carrying out routine harassment and humiliation. They were responding to a report rather than acting on their own initiative.  It was a quiet night. Not many people around.  They were probably bored.  In my hand I had a copy of The Match! - an anarchist journal from the US, that I'd been reading on the train. That issue happened to contain a letter to the editor from me critical of NSW Police!  I put it on the table so that I could undo my pants as they ordered.  "What are you reading?" one cop asked. "A magazine," I replied, stating the bleeding obvious. They didn't look at it or pursue the line of questioning.  "Where did you catch the train?"  "Erskineville."  "What were you doing there?"  "I was browsing bookshops in Newtown."  I answered their questions to begin with so as not to appear suspicious, as if I had something to hide.  But after a while I refused to answer any more.  Why should I submit to the harassment?  I'd done nothing wrong and didn't have to explain myself to them. They seemed to respect my right not to cooperate further.  One cop made a comment to the effect that they can't be too careful these days, with all the things that are going on. What was he alluding to there, I wonder?  Was I a terror suspect, a potential suicide bomber?  There was another remark, that I was 'unusual.'  Unusual?  Because I was someone of anglo appearance, in the ethnically diverse Bankstown area?  Because they don't usually 'profile' (harass) people like me?  When I've seen them harassing someone it's generally a young non-white person.  At the end I was asked whether there was anything I wanted to say to the police.  Well yes, there were a few things, but I wasn't going to say them!  All I wanted was to get away from them and resume my journey home.  Another passenger on the platform, who must have seen what happened, asked whether I was going to take the matter further.  I thought of the last time I lodged a complaint against police, of the officer smiling to himself as he wrote down details of long-lasting pain inflicted gratuitously on me during an arrest at a protest against John Howard in Darwin. Of course nothing came of the complaint.  I ended up taking some action of my own, naming and shaming publicly the officer concerned. I was publicly harassed and humiliated for nothing.  What kind of totalitarian police state do we live in?  Am I supposed to feel grateful I wasn't bashed or shot dead? Police get paid generous salaries from taxpayers' dollars to waste their own time and other people's. 

Funnily enough, before boarding the train I'd noticed the sign at Erskineville station saying, 'If you see something, say something.'  There's a photo of someone talking to police.  To the guard who dobbed me in, I'd like to say, "Congratulations! You have made an impressive contribution to the government's Fear, Suspicion and Paranoia campaign." The government wants us all to feel threatened by shadowy (Islamist) terrorist organisations.  It's a case of deja vu.  Up until 1990 it was the communist threat that we were told to fear, the Soviet Union and 'reds under the bed.'  The fear of 'the other' is always promoted - those who are not like 'we good people' and who want to do us harm.  Our good, strong government is supposed to be there to protect us and save us from evil. Though unfortunately we do have to sacrifice some of our liberties in return for the security provided. Whereas in reality the main threat to our freedom is the government itself, any government, and usually its business end, the police.  (By the way, isn't it bizarre how they have that announcement on the trains advising that if you're feeling unwell, don't risk boarding the train?  The announcement claims that there are medical staff at stations waiting to treat your illness. Is there anyone that actually believes this obvious lie?  Many stations are not staffed at all most of the time.) This incident caused me to reflect. The fact is that these days we're all being subjected to unprecedented surveillance.  Privacy is becoming an outmoded concept.  Just think of the trains for example.  The old trains have no cameras in them but the new ones have, I think, 8 cameras in each carriage.  That makes 64 on one train.  How does one guard monitor that many?  S/he could not possibly see all that is going on, and how good would the resolution and detail of an image be?  But that's probably not the point.  Increasingly, in this modern version of the panopticon - a prison in which many cells are simultaneously visible from a central vantage point - someone could be watching us at any time.  We don't know whether someone is seeing us at a particular time but we get used to acting at all times as if we are being watched.   The all-seeing god of earlier times has been replaced by the ubiquitous surveillance cameras, in train stations, shopping precincts and other public areas.  We don't know who is watching us, whether images are being recorded and stored, and if so, for how long.  Who has access to all this footage?  We don't know.  Add to this the vast amount of data being gathered from electronic communications.  Billions of people volunteer masses of personal information without knowing who has access to it and what it will be used for.  George Orwell would be horrified to see the nightmarish dystopia in his novel '1984' becoming the accepted reality.  How long before the surveillance cameras are in each room, including bedrooms and bathrooms, as we learn to welcome the benevolent gaze of Big Brother in every aspect of our lives?  Who could possibly object?  Only those with something to hide.  All decent citizens naturally want to see the end of the scourges of pedophilia and violence against women.  We know that information is power but too often we continue to surrender it without a fight to bosses like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg who seem to aspire to divine status.  Yes, life is as always a struggle to survive, make ends meet and somehow preserve our sanity, but shouldn't we be trying to redress the power imbalance, or at least taking the time to stop and think where we're heading with this mass surveillance society, before it really is too late?  Just because Big Brother wears a smile and has a soothing voice doesn't mean he's our friend.  Ps. Do not put your bag on the seat. Doors closing. Please stand clear.    Society Under Surveillance I sent a letter about the following incident to the editor of Sydney Morning Herald. Of course they didn't publish it. 

At 9pm on Thursday 22 June at Bankstown station I was taken off the train to Liverpool by police. They searched my bag and me. Reason? They said a guard saw someone of my description put something down the front of my pants. 

They took away my backpack and an officer put it on a seat on the platform and looked inside. Meanwhile they took me up in the lift into a room on the station concourse. About six of them surrounded me, ready to jump on and subdue me at the first sign of resistance.  They asked whether I was wearing underwear, before making me undo my pants so that they could have a bit of a look.  (What the guard had probably seen on the train's surveillance camera was me putting something, my wallet or handkerchief perhaps, in my pocket, at the front of my pants.)  They did a cursory rather than thorough search, suggesting that they didn't expect to actually find something, such as an illicit drug, weapon or explosive, but rather were carrying out routine harassment and humiliation. They were responding to a report rather than acting on their own initiative.  It was a quiet night. Not many people around.  They were probably bored.  In my hand I had a copy of The Match! - an anarchist journal from the US, that I'd been reading on the train. That issue happened to contain a letter to the editor from me critical of NSW Police!  I put it on the table so that I could undo my pants as they ordered.  "What are you reading?" one cop asked. "A magazine," I replied, stating the bleeding obvious. They didn't look at it or pursue the line of questioning.  "Where did you catch the train?"  "Erskineville."  "What were you doing there?"  "I was browsing bookshops in Newtown."  I answered their questions to begin with so as not to appear suspicious, as if I had something to hide.  But after a while I refused to answer any more.  Why should I submit to the harassment?  I'd done nothing wrong and didn't have to explain myself to them. They seemed to respect my right not to cooperate further.  One cop made a comment to the effect that they can't be too careful these days, with all the things that are going on. What was he alluding to there, I wonder?  Was I a terror suspect, a potential suicide bomber?  There was another remark, that I was 'unusual.'  Unusual?  Because I was someone of anglo appearance, in the ethnically diverse Bankstown area?  Because they don't usually 'profile' (harass) people like me?  When I've seen them harassing someone it's generally a young non-white person.  At the end I was asked whether there was anything I wanted to say to the police.  Well yes, there were a few things, but I wasn't going to say them!  All I wanted was to get away from them and resume my journey home.  Another passenger on the platform, who must have seen what happened, asked whether I was going to take the matter further.  I thought of the last time I lodged a complaint against police, of the officer smiling to himself as he wrote down details of long-lasting pain inflicted gratuitously on me during an arrest at a protest against John Howard in Darwin. Of course nothing came of the complaint.  I ended up taking some action of my own, naming and shaming publicly the officer concerned. I was publicly harassed and humiliated for nothing.  What kind of totalitarian police state do we live in?  Am I supposed to feel grateful I wasn't bashed or shot dead? Police get paid generous salaries from taxpayers' dollars to waste their own time and other people's. 

Funnily enough, before boarding the train I'd noticed the sign at Erskineville station saying, 'If you see something, say something.'  There's a photo of someone talking to police.  To the guard who dobbed me in, I'd like to say, "Congratulations! You have made an impressive contribution to the government's Fear, Suspicion and Paranoia campaign." The government wants us all to feel threatened by shadowy (Islamist) terrorist organisations.  It's a case of deja vu.  Up until 1990 it was the communist threat that we were told to fear, the Soviet Union and 'reds under the bed.'  The fear of 'the other' is always promoted - those who are not like 'we good people' and who want to do us harm.  Our good, strong government is supposed to be there to protect us and save us from evil. Though unfortunately we do have to sacrifice some of our liberties in return for the security provided. Whereas in reality the main threat to our freedom is the government itself, any government, and usually its business end, the police.  (By the way, isn't it bizarre how they have that announcement on the trains advising that if you're feeling unwell, don't risk boarding the train?  The announcement claims that there are medical staff at stations waiting to treat your illness. Is there anyone that actually believes this obvious lie?  Many stations are not staffed at all most of the time.) This incident caused me to reflect. The fact is that these days we're all being subjected to unprecedented surveillance.  Privacy is becoming an outmoded concept.  Just think of the trains for example.  The old trains have no cameras in them but the new ones have, I think, 8 cameras in each carriage.  That makes 64 on one train.  How does one guard monitor that many?  S/he could not possibly see all that is going on, and how good would the resolution and detail of an image be?  But that's probably not the point.  Increasingly, in this modern version of the panopticon - a prison in which many cells are simultaneously visible from a central vantage point - someone could be watching us at any time.  We don't know whether someone is seeing us at a particular time but we get used to acting at all times as if we are being watched.   The all-seeing god of earlier times has been replaced by the ubiquitous surveillance cameras, in train stations, shopping precincts and other public areas.  We don't know who is watching us, whether images are being recorded and stored, and if so, for how long.  Who has access to all this footage?  We don't know.  Add to this the vast amount of data being gathered from electronic communications.  Billions of people volunteer masses of personal information without knowing who has access to it and what it will be used for.  George Orwell would be horrified to see the nightmarish dystopia in his novel '1984' becoming the accepted reality.  How long before the surveillance cameras are in each room, including bedrooms and bathrooms, as we learn to welcome the benevolent gaze of Big Brother in every aspect of our lives?  Who could possibly object?  Only those with something to hide.  All decent citizens naturally want to see the end of the scourges of pedophilia and violence against women.  We know that information is power but too often we continue to surrender it without a fight to bosses like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg who seem to aspire to divine status.  Yes, life is as always a struggle to survive, make ends meet and somehow preserve our sanity, but shouldn't we be trying to redress the power imbalance, or at least taking the time to stop and think where we're heading with this mass surveillance society, before it really is too late?  Just because Big Brother wears a smile and has a soothing voice doesn't mean he's our friend.  Ps. Do not put your bag on the seat. Doors closing. Please stand clear.  

The State
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