CCTV cameras in the UK - surveillance and the loss of privacy. (this material from 2002/7 now of historical interest only.)

The UK has more CCTV cameras per head of population than any other country in the world. Now the police admit they can be a poor use of capital and may be largely ineffective in deterring or reducing crime. So why did the UK become CCTV crazy?

The answer probably lies in the inability of local councillors and other politicians to understand that the most expensive solution may not necessarily be the best. Also, the public clamour of 'action' on high profile crimes is most easily satisfied by a high-technology response. Unprincipled businessmen have made multimillion pound fortunes from the public purse - and crime rates have been largely unaffected.

In Sidmouth, a sleepy quintessentially 'English' seaside town, it was proposed to saturate the town centre with CCTV - the pressure came from a few local business people and dimwit councillors who can see no other way of dealing with spates of vandalism and drunken behaviour that are damaging Sidmouth's reputation as a centre of 'genteel' tourism. The local police are fully supportive of what they claim is a highly effective technology - maybe they should ask their more knowledgeable colleagues in London?!

Meanwhile all the 'low level' crime, underage drinking, dog fouling and littering that makes the centre of Sidmouth look more like a run-down housing estate continues to be largely ignored by the council officials who are paid to address these problems. 

Here are two articles that are worth reading!

From MSN news May 2007:

A senior police officer has admitted CCTV has failed to cut crime despite huge investment in camera systems.

Detective Chief Inspector Mike Neville, head of Scotland Yard's Visual Images, Identifications and Detections Office (Viido) said cameras do not act as a deterrent as many criminals assume they are not working. And he acknowledged that some police officers do not want to look through CCTV images "because it's hard work".

Det Ch Insp Neville said only 3 per cent of London's street robberies had been solved using CCTV images.

"Billions of pounds has been spent on kit, but no thought has gone into how the police are going to use the images and how they will be used in court. It's been an utter fiasco," he told the Security Document World Conference in London.

Scotland Yard is hoping to raise conviction rates in cases where there is CCTV evidence by putting images on the internet from next month and creating a database of images to track and identify offenders which could become a national resource for police.

Det Ch Insp Neville said images are already being collated from thefts, robberies and more serious crimes across London. "If criminals see that CCTV works they are less likely to commit crimes," he said.

Det Ch Insp Neville said there needs to be more training to help officers use CCTV evidence and develop a constructive relationship with CCTV operators.

EVERY MOVE YOU MAKE... they'll be watching you. In Britain, citizens can be photographed 300 times a day by surveillance cameras. Tim Loft asks why we accept such an intrusion.

The following article first appeared in The Times Magazine of 14.05.05 (published in the UK).

Imagine this. You arrive at the mall with your family to find dozens of hooded people with cameras and microphones, all following the shoppers about and recording them. Some of these hooded people, it turns out, are from the police, others work for the mall owners. others the local council, still others are private individuals who just get a kick out of this sort of thing. A few of them train cameras on your teenage daughter; who's wearing a provocatively tight T-shirt.

How would that make you feel? Shocked? Horrified? Intruded upon? Of course. Lucky, then, it is just science fiction, some nightmare out of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four.

Except that it isn't. It is, in fact, just an ordinary day for many of us, right here and right now. When I leave my home in Kensal Green, North London, I am picked up by a battery of cameras almost immediately as I pass Kensal Green Tube station. If I enter the Tube network I will be monitored more or less constantly. But cycling by, on my way on the mile's journey down Ladbroke Grove to Portobello Road, I notice at least four more separate cameras watching my progress. This figure doesn't include the cameras that the dozens of buses I pass use to keep the bus lanes clear, or the cameras inside those buses. And of course these are only the cameras I notice - many are disguised or hidden from view.

On the way back home, I count at least 20 cameras in one mile. Does that make me feel safer? No - especially as the cameras thin out in the more threatening parts of North Kensington (most cameras are located in high-rent areas, not in the ghettos). We are being watched and recorded far more than we realise. Recent studies suggest there are more than four million CCTV cameras in Britain, many fitted with zoom lenses and listening devices. Where they don't have microphones, lip-reading software is now available. During a typical day, a citizen may be captured as many as 300 times. We are by far the most watched-over nation in the world - and it doesn't seem to bother us in the slightest.

I find this extraordinary - because the only difference from my imaginary scenario of boom mikes and in-your-face cameramen is that we are not, for the most part, even aware of our watchers. We are not in Nineteen Eighty-four - because in that dystopia, the images from cameras that watched Party members (not the ordinary proles, who were allowed to maintain anonymity even in the Big Brother state) were on highly visible TV screens. Winston Smith at least knew he was being watched. And we don't - at least not in a way that informs our imaginations properly. We are simply vaguely aware that in our public spaces, workplaces and schools, and on our city streets, there are, somewhere out of our eyeline, cameras placed to trap wrongdoers, criminals and troublemakers.

We don't live in a totalitarian society. The cameras have a benign purpose. We hold our privacy cheap, it seems, if it will help catch criminals and reduce muggings and vandalism. But as technology advances, fear of terrorism increases and civil liberties retreat - witness the proposals for trials without jury, house arrest and ID cards - the idea of a total-surveillance society is increasingly attractive to politicians, corporations, law-enforcement agencies and citizens alike. Privacy - or if you prefer a less loaded term, anonymity - is slowly dying out.

My new novel, 'The Seymour Tapes', is about a man who installs secret cameras in his house to observe his family. He becomes addicted to secret information - to voyeurism - and it finally destroys. I have tried to work out why I chose this subject and I think it was partly my unease with the "confessional" journalism that I often write - packaging private information for public consumption. But it is also rooted in a long-standing anxiety over the growth of surveillance in Britain and the increasing authoritarianism of the government. I am worried by the multiplication of cameras and the disappearance of private space and identity.

It may simply be old-fashioned paranoia on my part. But after researching for The Seymour Tapes, I discovered that many of my fears were far better founded than I realised.

For instance, did you know that CCTV is now being fitted as standard on many new housing estates, under pressure from insurers who reward residents by bringing down premiums? And that often the CCTV is within the home? When it doesn't come as Standard, many people are fitting it voluntarily: the sales of nanny cams are booming. The Chief Constable of South Wales has suggested that women suffering domestic violence should use hidden cameras in their homes to accumulate evidence.

So what? Well, as CCTV becomes driven by computers instead of videotape, any expert hacker will be able to find his way into your private security system. Even now, if you have a webcam, then (if you can be tricked into downloading some Trojan-horse software) you can be watched in your home by an outside hacker, whether a private individual or a state agency. With broadband, people leave their computers on all the time, which means the possibility of 24 hour surveillance within the walls of your own house.

As surveillance systems multiply in public and semi-public spaces, the burden of monitoring them is leading to what might be called the robotisation of surveillance. A single operator cannot watch as many as 250 screens. Thus some councils - Newham in London is a case in point - are installing face-recognition systems. In Camden there are Flashcams which, triggered by "suspicious" behaviour, bellow, "Stop! If you are engaged in an illegal activity, your photograph will be taken and used to prosecute you Please leave the area." But who decides what behaviour is "suspicious"?

At the same time, face-recognition programmes are working to identity "known troublemakers" and terrorists. As a by-product of the London Congestion Charge, Trafficmaster number-plate recognition means that your car's location at any particular time will be fed into a central system that may be made available to the police.

"The problem with this," says Mark (he prefers to keep his surname private), who runs the internet CCTV surveillance regulation campaign Spy Blog  and the Watching Them Watching Us website "is that it is the latest move from targeted surveillance - at places where trouble is likely to occur - to mass surveillance.

"Why should we care? It depends if you want a private life or not. Who owns the pictures? What if mistakes are made, and you happen to look like a terrorist on a facial-recognition programme? If you are logged by a robot as 'acting suspiciously', will you end up on a police file somewhere as someone who needs to he watched?

"Technology is advancing all the time. There was a new camera system installed in Manchester for the Commonwealth Games. The city now has at least 400 cameras that keep 24-hour watch, seven days a week online. Any image from those cameras can be pulled back from the previous 92 days, so the old protection whereby tapes are constantly wiped and reused is disappearing".

We are beginning to enter a world where not only is our every move (and possibly word) recorded, but with computer technology, that information is stored where it is vulnerable to being accessed by - well, just about anybody who has the know-how.

"This is not just science fiction," says David Wood of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, who founded the Surveillance & Society project which brings together academic studies of surveillance. "There is a move towards miniaturisation and the effective 'disappearance' of cameras and other surveillance devices. This will allow them to be placed almost anywhere, constantly monitoring as part of the very fabric of our built environments, and even clothes and bodies. This is known as 'pervasive' or 'ambient' surveillance."

There is also a move towards 'intelligent', 'mobile' and 'swarming' devices - surveillance technology that moves around. At a basic level, that implies police mobile surveillance vans, through to remote control technologies (robots or flying predator 'drones') that the US military uses to monitor battlefields... In some cases, biological models are being used to create 'swarms' of such devices which can communicate with each other and re-pattern themselves to bring maximum coverage. These are not just ideas - they are being developed at universities and through the US military in particular".

Private space is shrinking as governments develop the potential to encroach on it. This is not out of any malevolent intent No: getting information is simply what governments like to do, for reasons of efficiency, security; and expanding their knowledge of the communities they ostensibly serve. Most people consider this fair enough at the moment although if you have been subjected to the new scanning devices at Heathrow Terminal 4, which can effectively see through clothes to reveal the naked body underneath, you may feel the intrusion is becoming excessive.

But what are the legal limits on the state, corporations and individuals regarding what information they can gather on a member of the public? Well, they're less stringent than you might think.

According to Gareth Crossman, director of policy at civil-rights organisation Liberty; "There is very little legislation to protect what happens to CCTV footage. A legal precedent last year established that the Data Protection Act doesn't apply to CCTV unless it is being targeted on a particular individual. Human Rights legislation on privacy might work if you're Catherine Zeta-Jones, but most of us don't even know we're being filmed in the first place. Even given the limited legal controls, a recent survey showed that 90 per cent of CCTV fails to comply with any data protection legislation."

Thus, where I am sitting at the moment, my window overlooks a nearby block of flats. There is absolutely no criminal law to stop me using a camera or directional microphone to snoop on the people living in those flats (although I may be in breach of civil law) - unless I am snooping for sexual purposes, which is covered by the 2003 Sexual Offences Act that aimed to criminalise voyeurism: since its introduction, only one person has been prosecuted.

We have a barely regulated free-for-all. Whatever implications it may have for democracy, as Mark from Spy Blog says, "Mass surveillance modifies your behaviour. It has a chilling effect. If you try going to a public demonstration nowadays, you will be videoed by police. It's intimidating. And if you ask for CCTV footage under the Data Protection Act - well, you have to find out who has the camera in the first place, which is difficult."

But surely, when all these highly abstract and hypothetical prices are paid, there is still the fact that surveillance reduces crime - isn't there? Well actually, no - the evidence is anything but conclusive. Although most police forces - Strathclyde, for example, which claimed a 75 per cent drop in crime following the installation of a CCTV system in Airdrie - are bullish about the benefits of CCTV, independent research suggests that the picture is much more mixed. Three recent criminological reports, according to the Privacy International website (, have discredited conventional wisdom about effectiveness. The director of The Scottish Centre for Criminology argues that claims of crime reduction are little more than fantasy. The British Journal of Criminology described the statistics from Strathclyde as "post hoc shoestring efforts by the untrained and self-interested practitioner". And the crime statistics rarely reflect the hypothesis that CCTV merely displaces criminal activity to areas outside the cameras.

"There is stronger evidence that street lighting stops crime than CCTV." says Gareth Crossman. "CCTV does little to prevent crime, although it does have some limited crime-detection we. What we really have is a myth of reassurance. However, the irony is that people are more afraid of crime than ever."

Of course, CCTV does have legitimate uses. According to Privacy International, the cameras are creating a vastly increased rate of conviction after crimes are detected. In King's Lynn, after CCTV was introduced, burglary and vandalism in the industrial estate has dropped to a fraction of its original level, and crime in car parks has dropped by 90 percent.

However, there is an equation to be made between our rights to privacy and the benefits of crime control. It is an equation that most people instinctively, and possibly lazily, load in favour of the cameras. But next time you are walking down the street, you don't even have to go as far as imagining people running around after you with cameras and boom mikes. what if; for instance, every camera had a 21-inch monitor accompanying it; so those being watched could see what the controllers were seeing? How would that feel? Or what if every camera, instead of being hidden and discreet, was designed in the shape of a giant eye? Would we accept that? It's only finally a matter of presentation - of imagination.

"The Seymour Tapes" by Tim Loft is published by Viking price 12.99.

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