Confessions of a Pandemic Paranoid
This is a true story about how paranoid I have become.
This is a true story about how paranoid I have become.
A couple of Sundays ago Beth, my wife, and I went for a walk into the centre of the city. It was the first time we had done so since the UK lockdown.
Shops had just re-opened and we wanted to stretch our legs. We walked to the main high street in Leeds city centre, saw the ludicrous crowds, lack of masks and people casually ignoring the 2-metre rule (and personal space in general) so headed back almost immediately, picking up some beers and something for tea on the way home so we could reproduce a cheeky Sunday afternoon pint at home.
I half-joked that everyone else out shopping was a potential murdered whose primary target was me and whose M.O. was biological warfare. A sneeze was a gun being fired as far as I was concerned.
We were having a pleasant afternoon when a text from my sister-in-law upset Beth.
My sister-in-law was working in town that day and was looking through the BACIL (Businesses Against Crime In Leeds) database when she came across a picture of Beth and me listed as shoplifters — classy shoplifters at least, targeting Marks & Spencer.
BACIL is a pub-watch type service business can sign up to allowing stores to upload footage of known (or in this case, imagined) criminals so other stores in the area are aware of who to watch out for.
When we were informed that we were Leeds most wanted “cosmetics to the value of £60” thieves, our initial responses were very different. I thought it was a little funny and entirely harmless. We hadn’t stolen anything and the listing had said we been apprehended by security.
Being still at large would easily remedy being misidentified. But my wife, ironically, works as a fraud investigator and is subject to security checks. She worried being misidentified might cause problems in work. So we began to reach out to BACIL and M&S to solve the problem.
“Oh, how we laughed. But as I prepared tea (an M&S Karahi curry kit no less! Damnable warming spice and rich flavour of treachery!) I started to worry.”
As we made some headway, Beth started to see the funny side. We’d come to rely on the smaller M&S just outside of town (despite their sub-par range of crisps) during the lockdown for A) it’s proximity and B) the stringent adherence to social distances and the roominess between their aisle.
This was a great betrayal of our customer loyalty, a stab to the heart of the bond between grocer and patron.
Oh, how we laughed. But as I prepared tea (an M&S Karahi curry kit no less! Damnable warming spice and rich flavour of treachery!) I started to worry.
We hadn’t been into the city centre M&S in months because of lockdown. The picture of us not committing a crime was from months ago. Why had it suddenly come to my sister-in-law’s attention on the same day we had visited town? It was obvious. We are being spied on.
“I knew two things. Firstly, Britain has the most CCTV of any nation on the planet and secondly, technically, the authorities aren’t allowed to use facial recognition software to spy on us.”
It made perfect sense. When had headed into town, been caught on camera, facial recognition software had identified us, cross-referenced us with BACIL’s database and update users that were where in town, striking fear into the hearts of multi-million-pound corporations with petty theft.
I knew two things. Firstly, Britain has the most CCTV of any nation on the planet and secondly, technically, the authorities aren’t allowed to use facial recognition software to spy on us. But clearly, that’s what happened. I took to Google and constructed this terrible argument with what I found.
- The rules governing facial recognition software doesn’t cover how private companies use such technology.
- BACIL is partnered with both the West Yorkshire Police and SentrySis.
- SentrySis is a tech company working with private security services and DOES utilise facial recognition software.
- Therefore, BACIL is using SentrySis services and monitoring the people of Leeds in collaboration with the WYP!
It had to be true.
“sure, the government is probably spying on me. This I accept.”
What panicked me about this is it seemed like a loophole. The Authorities (those bastards) who couldn’t use facial recognition could ask corporations, (those other bastards) to use it on their behalf. What’s worse, I thought, “sure, the government is probably spying on me.
This I accept. They are accountable (kinda) and since I’ve not done anything wrong, I’ll be fine”.
But a private pub watch style group spying on me, unaccountable, unapproachable, unelected and happily handing out incorrect assumptions about people scared the shit out of me.
I had the panic of a technology getting out of control and being used by self-appointed arbiters of justice and middle-manager at Marks and Spencers who thought we looked the sort.
(In actuality the store manager was just doing their job but we did notice the image was uploaded two days after the supposed event occurred. Witness testimony is unreliable but the manager had been given an award for BACIL most prolific user so I feel justified in imagined them as an over-zealous Karen.)
I suddenly had this inescapable feeling I was constantly being watched and powerless to do anything about it. This was the truth of my reality.
I was wrong. A nice chap at BACIL sorted it all out for us, both removing the listed and explaining how it functioned. The reason for the apparent delay was lockdown.
The image taken of us mistakenly and uploaded was just days before lockdown. Since this was just a few days after shops re-opened, and users hadn’t been in work to add more images, the most recent criminals caught on camera were months old. What my sister-in-law spotted wasn’t a new update based on facial recognition monitoring us, it was a delayed mistake.
“But living through a global pandemic has made me paranoid by nature, not coincidence. It’s become the background radiation ever-present and ever -withering.”
I’ve written about the joy of resorting to magical thinking in the past (see below) and I am a fervent adherent to Occam’s Razor (the explanation with the fewest assumptions is probably the correct one, again, see below) so I realised I was being slightly paranoid about the whole thing.
A comic by me and Jordan Collver.
But living through a global pandemic has made me paranoid by nature, not coincidence. It’s become the background radiation ever-present and ever -withering.
That half-joke about everyone trying to infect me? Well, I said it humorously but deep down I believed it to be true; other people are now a danger and can’t be trusted.
It’s more than thinking, “yes, facial recognition is controversial” or “people should maintain a safe distance” — all the evidence points to these things being true. It’s the sensation of knowing these things are true and projecting malevolence onto others; the government (or at least a high street retailer) is spying on me and people will harm me given half a chance.
Protecting yourself in a pandemic only goes so far. You can believe you’re being responsible but if you think others are not, it’s all for nothing. Their ambivalence to the situation compromises the severity of your own approach. They quite literally foil your plans.
And at a certain point, their attitude toward the pandemic becomes so alien, so devoid of the same principles you have applied to it, you can’t help but believe it may be wilful.
This has been exacerbated by the stress and anxiety of living in lockdown, but the truth is, this paranoia has been years in the making.
In the UK we’ve spent the last four years being lied to by the Government and, if you are a liberal, lefty, Remainer like me, having your assumptions about other people destroyed.
Slowly, with Brexit and the repeated voting of the Tories into power, you start to internalise the idea that you don’t know what other people believe or value. That you can’t trust them to do the right thing (which is actually just what I think is the right thing) and in fact, people are destructive and selfish and, ultimately, your enemy.
And because I don’t want to believe that about people, I have to accept, I am paranoid.
Sadly, however, paranoia isn’t a feeling the world is a bad place out to get you; it’s knowing the world is a bad place out to get you. What you want to believe and what you simply know become distant and irreconcilable constituencies, separate in dogma, hopes and the analysis of evidence.
As we come out of isolation, I’m certain a lot of people will be feeling like this, like you can’t trust the strangers around you, and I’m uncertain how we make the journey back from suspicious paranoia to trusting cautiousness.
Maybe the biggest mental hurdle to overcome (and perhaps the true maxim of conspiracy theorists everywhere), is the idea that just because I’m paranoid that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.
Originally published on medium