Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance
By Robin Tudge
Pubs. New Internationalist (2011)
Pbck £7.99

In Berlin recently I happened to drive past a new building site which looked like an enormous prison complex or brutalist housing estate. Curious, I read the sign and learned that this will be the new HQ of the quaintly-named Federal News Service (BND) - the German equivalent of our own MI5. It is a salutary reminder of the central power such spying agencies occupy in our societies today. In his book, Tudge offers numerous examples of the epidemic-like spread and tentacular reach of surveillance systems everywhere.

This is the 12th in the excellent New Internationalist series of guides to vital subjects ranging from Islam to human rights, from global terrorism to Green politics. Tudge demonstrates how seemingly innocuous TV shows like Big Brother help inure us to the idea that surveillance is merely entertainment, with no insidious purpose. He takes us on a historical rollercoaster of how surveillance systems have developed from our earliest historical beginnings. God, of course, is the prototypical ideal of omniscient surveillance. Tudge demonstrates how ruling elites throughout history have developed and refined systems of surveillance as a means of controlling their underlings.

His research is meticulous and comprehensive, but he does, inexplicably, call the Tsarist secret police, the Ochrinka instead of its correct name Okhrana. It is a good read, not short on black humour, but also much useful detail. My main criticism is that it builds a scary scenario of a future ruled by TV cameras, data banks and ID systems, in which we will all live permanently on a ‘Big Brother’ planet, but he offers no suggestions as to how to combat or avert such a scenario.

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