A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 112

CCTV: The All-Seeing Eye is watching you.

Sunday, July 12

“The common man is ruled by the expert, certainly. He obeys the persuasive power of the propagandist in his eating, drinking, sanitary, and even sexual habits, in the clothes he wears and the entertainments he attends, in his attitude towards his fellow men and towards God. But at the heart of obedience there is the desire for revolt. There are few things the common man…desires more than to see the expert utterly discomfited….they applaud the expert’s occasional collapse as they are delighted when a top-hatted man slips on a banana skin.”

—Julian Symons, The Colour of Murder

So much for mask-wearing, know-it-all epidemiologists and lockdown-prone mayors! Yea for Trump and all freedom-loving true Americans!

Here, then, is the problem with the assessment that an appeal to reason can defeat MAGA man. New York Times writer Thomas Friedman recently suggested that Biden’s bumper sticker should be: “Respect science, respect nature, respect each other.” This “science,” however, is just what stands behind the blundering weather report that leaves you soaking wet on a supposedly sunny day. Then there’s the constantly shifting advice on diet—drinking alcohol is bad for you, but a bit of red wine is good for your circulation. Be sure to eat fish, which is good for your heart—unless that fish contains mercury! 

Radiation can cause cancer—so let’s have another X-ray of your teeth, your back, or maybe that sprained ankle. 

And—perhaps we should get a second opinion; the more expertise the better.

It’s no wonder that the public is skeptical of experts, whether they represent medical wisdom, computer mastery, or even military know-how. It was, after all, Colin Powell and George W. Bush’s team of “weapons of mass destruction” discoverers that sent us into a catastrophic war in Iraq—as Trump never tires of reminding us. Trump has his own teams of experts—and he frequently takes issue with them and calls them names. One minute Jeff Sessions is a fantastic pick for Attorney General, the next minute he’s a no-good coward and traitor.

Today’s Times brings a story of yet another bit of expertise that the public mistrusts. A wealthy tech executive named Chris Larsen is spending his own money to install a private network of CCTV cameras around the city of San Francisco.

These cameras are meant to deter the spate of petty crimes, especially robberies, that are taking place there. But Larsen’s CCTV isn’t under the control of government or the city police. Instead, neighborhood watch groups are in charge. “Neighbors band together and decide where to put the cameras. They are installed on private property at the discretion of the property owner, and in San Francisco many home and business owners want them. The footage is monitored by the neighborhood coalition,” says the article.

But wait a minute: Isn’t this Larsen guy representative of the wise-guy Silicon Valley types who are turning Baghdad by the Bay into a high-priced bedroom suburb peopled by snotty tech wonks? Google’s mega fleet of private shuttle buses, a soaring cost of living, and an end to many of the San Francisco quirks so beloved by long-time natives—isn’t that what he represents?

Who elected Larsen? Who elected these neighborhood watch committees?

And why is my smart phone so plagued with problems. Experts, phooey!

Dinner: barbecued pork chops, potato salad, and a lettuce and tomato salad.

Entertainment: Two episodes of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 98

CCTV is everywhere.

Saturday, June 20

There are more news reports regarding the use of aircraft to monitor demonstrations. The Times now says that the Department of Homeland Security employed drones, helicopters, and airplanes to spy on Black Lives Matter protests in 15 cities from Minneapolis to Buffalo.

It’s all part of a Homeland Security digital network called “Big Pipe” that can be accessed by a range of federal and local authorities. Collectively, the aircraft logged at least 270 hours of surveillance.

But what about old-fashioned CCTV? Have we come to accept that as a given—a loss of privacy we have to live with?

In Britain, The Guardian reported back in 2011 that there was one CCTV camera for every 32 citizens. So there must be many more cameras now.

Many of these U.K. cameras were inside private premises, including malls and stores, although police have easy access to such video. But American cities put a lot of cameras right out in the open.

New York City’s “domain awareness system”—a partnership between the police and Microsoft Corp.—utilizes 18,000 video surveillance cameras. The city’s subway system has over 4,000 cameras (although nearly half of them do not work), and two-thirds of large apartment and commercial buildings have video surveillance.

The city’s system links up license-plate readings, court summonses, 911 calls, and police reports. Some $350 million in Homeland Security money got New York’s network started, but today the system is a money-maker for the city. Its approach and software are licensed out everywhere from Washington, D.C. to Brazil and Singapore.

In the Washington D.C.-area, there are more than 30,000 surveillance cameras in schools, and that city’s subway employs nearly 6,000 cameras.

Much has been made of the U.S. Constitution’s “right to privacy,” especially with regard to Supreme Court abortion-rights rulings. But courts have facilitated access to CCTV footage, and the American Civil Liberties Union says there has been very little explicit regulation of video. “There are currently no general, legally enforceable rules to limit privacy invasions and protect against abuse of CCTV systems,” says the ACLU.

I myself have been victimized in a very small way by these cameras. A while back, I received two notices via e-mail and snail-mail of “red light violations.” One of these included a photo of my car (presumably, I was at the wheel) running a Manhattan red light at the corner of 26th St. and Second Avenue. The light did indeed look red in the printed-out version, but it was clearly only yellow in the e-mailed version. In any case, the notice said, the summons was not appealable—pay or die.

My online research revealed that the camera was put there by the city and its partner Xerox Corp. (When was the last time you heard of them?) Both make good moola off this labor-free gotcha gimmick.

The red-light-camera gambit has drawn plenty of public complaints. Apparently, the system has a hair trigger that’s prone to entrapping drivers who are mid-intersection when the light changes. On Long Island, the red-light traps have resulted in lots of rear-end collisions, as wary drivers slam on the brakes when they see a light turn yellow, only to be rear-ended by the driver behind them. 

But the issue of the moment is much larger than red-light entrapment. It concerns surveillance of demonstrators exercising their constitutional rights of freedom of expression and assembly. And as can be easily seen, the “authorities” are openly hostile to such demonstrations. 

Dinner: homemade pizza and a lettuce, cucumber, and radish salad.

Entertainment: More episodes of Marcella, from season two, and one episode of the David Attenborough nature documentary Our Planet.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 97

A Florida National Guard RC-26 in action.

Friday, June 19

And the next shortage is…charcoal!

Out of stock, they report at Damark. CVS has none, either, while they do have stuff like cookies, ice cream, milk, lots of bottled beverages, etc.

I had donned my mask and gloves and gone out to get some more Aleve and vitamin D-3, along with a few eats that Peapod failed to deliver. We have enough charcoal to make hamburgers tonight, but that’s likely the end. 

Nor is there any sign of the rabbit this morning, but last evening as the gloaming came on, I could see the little guy sitting near the neighbor’s driveway. There’s new, and likely delicious, sod in their front yard, so that’s probably an attraction.

While I am here blabbing about bunnies, the national security state is taking advantage of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations to refine its surveillance hardware. Both the West Virginia and the Wisconsin national guards have sent state-of-the-art RC-26 airplanes to be eyes-in-the-sky over demos in D.C. and Minneapolis. According to the Times: “Representative Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican who is also an RC-26 pilot in the Wisconsin Air National Guard, said he flew two night missions this month in support of domestic law enforcement officials in Minneapolis, sending real-time video feeds to the authorities on the ground.” These “authorities” can view the real-time feeds on their cellphones, it seems.

However, according to this source, “the plane’s onboard camera was powerful enough to make out the general image of an individual as the three-member crew flew at altitudes between 4,000 and 20,000 feet. But the cameras were not strong enough or sophisticated enough to use for facial recognition or to read license plates on vehicles.” But now that the authorities are aware of that, there could be some tweaks to bring the onboard cameras up to speed.

Why not simply get more CCTV? That’s what they use, to great effect, in all the Brit cop shows. On the cops’ computers, they can zoom in right on a perp’s face or license plate. And if it’s on Netflix, it must be true, right? So, how come the RC-26s?

Well because CCTV wouldn’t add to the bottom line of aircraft makers Fairchild and Lockheed, who no doubt make big campaign contributions to congressional representatives.

And nothing’s too good for our boys in uniform. It’s seems we’ve been handing the planes around to various foreign governments, including Venezuela (!) and Peru.

Tonight’s dinner: hamburgers, baked potatoes with sour cream, and coleslaw.

Entertainment: Two final episodes of the first season of Marcella.