5 June 2015

Watching me watching you

A group of workmen installing a camera high up on a pole at a traffic junction in East London, where it is presumably intended to monitor traffic offences, crime and civil unrest. It will of course also pick up images of everyone walking across the junction or hanging out on the street corner. The chap in the foreground isn't posing for a photo, he's approaching to ask why I'm pointing my mobile phone camera at them. Asking politely, as in not making threats and demanding I delete the snaps, but still somewhat aggressively.

Which is more than a little ironic, if you think about it. Actually though, a fixed camera is preferable to the alternative. There used to be a Smart camera car parked at the side of the road, blocking the cycle lane. CCTV cars are allowed to park on yellow lines but blocking a cycle lane during the rush hour is not a great idea, throwing cyclists out into the stream of traffic. That was annoying, but not as annoying as the sense of being watched. A man in uniform sat in the car, watching. Not always the same man, one would drive off and another would take his place. Every time I walked past I felt watched, even though I knew they were there for traffic control, not random surveillance of the civilian population. They never made eye contact, but if they weren't looking up they could be looking at you on the screen.

What a boring job, sitting in a car all day trying to look indifferent, cut off by locked doors and wound-up windows - of course you would watch the people and speculate about some of them. And what an unpopular job. Sometimes we would be treated to an appearance by the protest group that goes around following the spy cars on motorbikes, often wearing the notorious Guy Fawkes masks. They couldn't park but they would ride backwards and forwards across the junction, two to a bike, the pillion rider holding up a placard saying HIDDEN $CAMERA until the car gave up and drove away. There's something particularly objectionable about the spy cars, the combination of camera and person watching from the safety of a car.

Before the cars, sometimes a policeman stood in the same spot, mainly to enforce the no left turn sign, but that was entirely different. Who would object to a person standing in the street, not to make money but to deter antisocial behaviour, out there in the open where you could pass the time of day, ask directions or simply make eye contact, acknowledge each other's existence. Once I got stopped on that corner, turning left with toddlers strapped into their seats on the back seat of my clapped-out Montego, and the police officer was so reasonable about it I thought, he's right, and never did it again, police presence on the corner or not. So, no more camera cars in this particular spot, and good riddance. The enforcement team is presumably watching a bank of monitors from some remote location, but at least you don't have to see them.

* The location is the junction of Blackhorse Road and Forest Road. This was first posted on London Sidelines blog last year.