The realities of Project Argus appear even madder than when first announced by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. Argus is our liberty-loving democratic government's latest initiative to apprehend terrorists, or photographers as they are sometimes known, using specially trained civic workers and private individuals who just like spying on people.
According to Amateur Photographer "Civilians are being told to be on guard for people carrying cameras and zoom lenses as part of anti-terrorism seminars being rolled out nationwide."
The scheme, run the National Counter Terrorism Security Office (NaCTSO), offers a series of seminars throughout the UK and aims to take handpicked civilians such as car park attendants, security guards and Daily Mail readers and give them just enough training and authority to make them a huge pain in the arse.
The 3hr seminars will teach advanced police crime detection methods such as spotting when someone looks "shifty". "Project Argus urges people to look out for 'overt/covert photography' as well as those in possession of photographs, maps, gps, photographic equipment, (cameras, zoom lenses, camcorders)..." reports AP.
Since this applies to almost everybody in the UK over the age of 9 and under the age of 75, this jobsworth army of 60,000 will doubtless keep us safe by interfering with our dwindling civil liberties to an unprecedented degree. Although photographers have long grown used to aggressive demands to know "what are you doing?", now even possession of photographs or an A to Z is a cause for suspicion.
We have to ask : how much any of this really has to do with terrorism, and how much it is formulated to further deter the use of cameras in public places? Nobody wants to be murdered by fanatics, but possession of a camera is almost as ubquitous as trousers. It is the weakest possible hint that someone may be engaged in terrorism. The police's insistence on repeatedly conflating the two is looking increasingly like a deliberate slur designed to establish a cultural resistance to street photography. Not content with CCTV coverage, FIT monitoring, ANPR, the OSA, S44, S43 and the new CTA2008 offence of 'eliciting information of use to terrorists' by photographing police without a defensible reason, the police have neither the manpower nor the intelligence capability to apprehend terrorists. Nor have they been able to deter the use of cameras by the public in ways that are often deeply inconvenient, most recently the footage of the alleged police assault and subsequent death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 demo.
The fact is that the police, whilst enthusiastic proponents of photography within their control, seldom gain anything from the public use of cameras and quite often it is an irritant. Suppressing the latter is a bonus, if not a motive, for using Argus trainees alerted to regard photography as potentially hostile.
It certainly will not be possible to teach anyone much about either effective surveillance or the legalities of photography in public places in a few hours. Since the Argus focus is on the former, we dread the consequences of 60,000 individuals knowing just enough to be loudly and confidently wrong almost all of the time.
If only they had been trained in photography instead, they might actually appreciate that the difference in motivation is immediately apparent once you know what you're looking for. Terrorists are never going to be trying to take good pictures. Their pictorial style is rubbish, their attention to lighting and composition slovenly and their portraiture so inexpressively bad that not even BJP would publish it. And there you have a rational argument for making bad photography a prima facie indication of terrorism and an arrestable offence. Rational but deranged and dangerous, like Project Argus and so much else of the War on Photography.