Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg

Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg
Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg © Gernot Keller, 2007
Blinkered Justice articles also appear on CrimeTalk and Government In The Lab

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

A load of rubbish: Oliver Letwin, surveillance and justice

File:Surveillance quevaal.jpg
(c) Quevaal

The news last week that government minister, Oliver Letwin MP, had been discarding official papers in the dustbins of St James’ Park brought to mind notions of surveillance and justice.

Ideas of surveillance are based on the 18th Century notion of the ‘panopticon’. Jeremy Bentham considered building a prison with a watchtower in the middle, where prison guards could keep an eye on detainees in cells that surrounded it. The idea being that inmates would regulate their behaviours accordingly as if they were being watched, regardless of whether they were or not. Michel Foucault’s thoughts on panopticism lead us to believe that in an increasingly surveilled society (e.g. CCTV) that we regulate ourselves more vigorously; we discipline ourselves so that the state does not have to.

Power is prevalent in concepts of surveillance. Those considered ‘risky’, including those from particular ethnic and poorer socio-economic backgrounds, are subject to greater surveillance. We regularly see stories in the press that castigate ‘benefits cheats’. At about the same time last week, Jake Preston was secretly recorded winning a Motocross race. It is normally at the behest of state institutions that ‘risky’ individuals are monitored.

In Letwin’s case, it was the Daily Mirror that uncovered his trashing of papers, although presumably they found out from another source. Had the Daily Mirror, a reasonably powerful media player, not reported this story, I wonder whether it would have surfaced had a park attendant passed on the information directly to the police.

National security is the main focus of Letwin’s neglect. There were concerns that sensitive papers were amongst the documents that he disposed of, but it seems that none of the papers that he binned were that sensitive. He acknowledges that he was replying to constituents’ letters in the park and may have thrown these manuscripts away. Therefore, for his constituents, the papers may be sensitive.

(c) Cabinet Office

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is looking into whether Letwin breached the Data Protection Act (DPA). The ICO has a guide that de-clutters the legalese of the DPA. I understand that many letters were torn in half, but that some were not. Regardless, I am presuming that the name and address of the constituent is visible. If that is correct, then Letwin is in breach of Principle 7 of the DPA, on several counts.

Following Foucault’s line, it appears that Letwin, who does not come from a disadvantaged background, had no reason to believe that he too should be observed. For him, CCTV is something that follows ‘others’. However, it seems that ‘others’ are also ignorant of the prevalence of surveillance. So has surveillance brought about a more equitable system of justice?

Those who believe that the powerful face the same (synoptic) levels of surveillance miss the point. The powerful are rarely the target of surveillance operations. The state did not seek to stop Letwin causing harm because they do not track people like him. The justice system is still geared towards tracking the likes of ‘benefits cheats’, a term for which I have previously argued for a wider understanding.

Moreover, it remains to be seen how justice is to be administered in Letwin’s case. The harm that he has caused is, at present, unknown. Harms such as identity theft can take time before an individual becomes aware that his/her details have been misappropriated. For the state, retribution is swift and punitive, because the harms that ‘benefits cheats’ caused are already out there.

Power is implicit in surveillance and whilst it is mainly top-down, it can be turned on its head and used to bring about the fall of the mighty. However, in a culture where surveillance is now omnipresent, from the CCTV on our streets to the YouTube on our personal computers, it appears to have saturated itself, and diluted its own power to turn us into the model, self-disciplining citizens that it would have us become. 
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