Utopias and dystopias have this in common: surveillance. From Thomas More’s “Utopia” (1516) to George Orwell’s “1984” (1949), from Plato’s “Republic” (c. 380 B.C.) to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” (1921), the view prevails that people behave better under scrutiny. Why conceal good deeds? For no reason. Therefore the deeds we do conceal are evil. Therefore concealment is evil. Therefore surveillance is good. As Eric Schmidt remarked in 2009, when he was Google CEO, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Neither More nor Plato, Utopians both, would have found that objectionable, though Orwell and Zamyatin certainly would have.
Schmidt’s comment has been quoted so often, and provoked such outrage, that he probably wishes he’d kept it to himself. As an ethic, it’s repugnant. As prophecy, it fares better. It seems where we’re headed, if not where we are already. Japan is not the world’s only “surveillance society,” but security cameras already said to number in the millions are proliferating as the Tokyo Olympics loom, making it safest to assume that whoever you are, wherever you may be, whatever you’re doing, you’re being watched, by something if not somebody.
Not that it matters, if you’re doing nothing wrong.
A hypothetical question suggests itself. Suppose all crime was preventable by ubiquitous, all-inclusive, 24/7 surveillance. Nothing obtrusive, no omnipresent “telescreens” a la “1984,” no Orwellian “boot stamping on a human face, forever.” Simply — as now, only more so. Now, you walk into a convenience store or into a train knowing that cameras may be in operation, and think nothing of it. Their purpose is to catch (better still, thwart) shoplifters, gropers, pickpockets, explosive depressives or terrorists; if you’re not one of them, it’s got nothing to do with you; if anything you feel more secure — are the cameras not called “security cameras” more often than “surveillance cameras”? If you’re grateful for the heightened security, and it’s hard not to be, it stands to reason you’d be still more grateful for still more security. Total surveillance, total security. You and all of us — on camera everywhere, at home, in the street, at work, at play, simply as a matter of course, your every action observed, your every utterance recorded, your every thought (let’s take it to the ultimate extreme) picked up by sensors. It’s not on the immediate horizon (or is it? As far back as 2008, the Nikkei Business website ran an article on ubiquitous computing, linking it to potential ubiquitous surveillance). Still, for the sake of argument let’s say the chances of it ever coming to that are remote. No crime, perfect security, but always and everywhere under scrutiny — not malevolent or malicious scrutiny, but scrutiny nonetheless. Hypothetically speaking — is the bargain acceptable?
All crime may not be preventable by surveillance, but clearly some is — 59 percent of it, perhaps. No, less. Police nationwide in 2016 filed criminal charges in 22,318 cases, 12,994 of them — 59 percent — were based on surveillance camera footage, National Police Agency statistics cited by Kyodo News in January show. Unfortunately, not all the charges were appropriate. Kyodo mentions fears in some quarters that police have come to rely so heavily on camera footage that their investigative skills are rusting, to the detriment of necessary follow up, leading to innocent people being wrongfully accused. Such collateral damage, whatever percentage it works out to, would have to be subtracted from the suppositious 59 percent of crimes preventable by surveillance.
Collateral damage is a major if unintentional theme of the anti-conspiracy law that went into effect last Tuesday. Its official title — the Act on Punishment of Organized Crimes and Control of Crime Proceeds — seems designed to lay all fears to rest. The fears persist nonetheless.
From now on, the mere planning of certain crimes — 277 of them — is a criminal offense. Suspicion of planning is grounds for investigation. The government says it’s necessary to prevent terrorism. Terrorism has become such a deadly global scourge that the public is often willing to give governments the benefit of the doubt. Doubts loom large all the same. Critics cite the vague wording of the law. It gives police enormous discretion. Who will come under surveillance? Environmental advocates? Labor activists? Demonstrators? Opposition party members? Opposition party sympathizers? Everyone, everywhere, just in case? To know who’s planning what and how criminal it might be will require keeping an eye and an ear on a lot of people a lot of the time, maybe the whole population always.
Weekly Playboy magazine says arming the police with the heightened powers explicit and implicit in the new law is “too dangerous.” It cites several instances of police abuse of power and says, in effect, This is before the law. What now? One case it mentions involves police in 2013 surreptitiously, without a warrant, attaching GPS devices to 19 vehicles owned by five members of a suspected theft ring. Case dismissed, ruled the Supreme Court this past March. The evidence had been obtained illegally, it found. A clear line had been overstepped. Has the conspiracy law shifted that line, or blurred it?
The secret camera surveillance of opposition party supporters in Beppu, Oita Prefecture, in the weeks leading up to last summer’s Upper House election raises a similar question. Police — caught red-handed, as it were — have apologized. That was good of them. The point, however the courts ultimately rule, is that the police want to see everything and criminals want to conceal everything. As to citizens who are neither police nor criminals — where do we stand?
Here, there and everywhere, across a very wide spectrum, apparently. Protection is appreciated until it becomes oppressive. At what point does it? That it has in Orwell’s “1984” is clear. Whether it has, or is about to, in Japan’s “surveillance society” is not. Some are oppressed at the mere thought of what might happen under the new law. Others are more easygoing. Those for whom a meal loses its savor unless the eating of it is broadcast on social media are probably among the latter.
Michael Hoffman is the author of “Other Worlds” and “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan.”
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