It creeps up on me gradually. There isn’t just one, looking particularly malicious in the full light of day. They’re everywhere in College, glaring or squinting at me. “We installed them for Security Reasons” the Bursar explains. I try to forget.
For a while I put it down to coincidence. Then I observe that if I’ve had a ropey day at work there’s invariably an email the next day advertising hidden cameras – not the visible security ones but high-tech spy cameras for secret surveillance purposes. I often break into a cold sweat as I sort through my inbox. I take to checking the light-fittings in my office for suspicious objects. I’m unable to sleep for three nights after watching The Sixth Sense. It isn’t the ghost that’s frightening but the revelation of a hidden camera observing the bedroom where the child has been gradually, secretly, poisoned by her mother.
One day, working at home, I notice there’s a small fleck at the centre of my computer screen. It looks round – more and more round as the day wears on. It’s white against blue with a dark centre like a tiny pupil. I could swear it clocks me when I leave my desk; I could swear it follows my movements to and fro all morning from document to document, in and out of emails. I’m trying to concentrate on writing a confidential letter relating to my recent ill health. Every word I write is being watched by the fleck, so I get nothing done.
By lunch-time I’ve convinced myself it’s a spy camera, installed by the college to observe me at home. But perhaps there’s a reasonable explanation; perhaps it’s some kind of virus, or bug? I ring the Computing Service:
Is it possible there’s a bug in my computer?
What does it look like, and what does it do?
It’s like a small eye, at the centre of the screen. It seems to move; it seems to watch me.
How small, and have you tried cleaning the monitor?
Smaller than a lentil; and the monitor is clean.
Bring it in, we’ll take a look and try to reassure you.
Try to reassure me. Without delay I get into the car. In town I park and forget to feed the meter. I walk into the entrance of Computer Services. I walk fast because by this stage I’ve become convinced that someone’s following me; he will hang around outside till I re-emerge. I explain about the fleck to a nice man, keeping my voice as matter of fact as possible; it wouldn’t do to convey too much panic. He checks my laptop, updates my Sophos protection, and smiles as though my fear is an average everyday occurrence; as though it’s to be expected that employees will assume they are being observed at home by a spy camera. I’m sweating by the time I leave to find the car. There’s someone following me for sure. I can’t find the car, I can’t remember where I parked it. Eventually it turns up with a parking-fine attached to the screen. I pull away sharply.
What possesses me to drop into College? I don’t know. I convince myself I need to retrieve a confidential document relating to my health from the computer in my room. I’ve shaken off whoever was following me, but when I arrive in my room it’s clear someone has been in there searching for something. For a week or so I’ve been wondering about the light-fittings, whether they might allow concealment of spy cameras. This evening I re-check them, climbing on a chair to unscrew each bulb and replace it with a new one. By now the sweating is a problem and my heart is pounding. It isn’t like the fear you feel at night, having convinced yourself the noise you heard was a burglar. It’s a much more pervasive fear that the whole room is under surveillance and bugged.
There’s only one place where I feel I’m unobserved – in the adjoining loo. There I can close the door and read the document as soon as I’ve found it and printed it out. Every one of my actions is visible to my observers while in the main room, but in the loo-room I’m safe. I preserve a dignified bearing, moving in an unhurried fashion between the rooms. When I’m sure the document is the one I need I leave my room, locking it carefully, and go down to talk to the porters:
Someone has been in my room, I’d like to get the locks changed.
What makes you think that?
Things have been moved.
Could that be your scout? (A scout is the Oxford name for cleaner.)
She doesn’t move my stuff.
When do you think this happened?
Last night for sure.
We can double check.
We can watch everything that happened last night in the front quad on this screen. We can play it back on film, you can watch it with us. We have a security camera trained on the entrance to your staircase.
From Diary of a Bipolar Explorer (Signal, 2018)