Spy Cameras: Does Your Privacy Really Matter?

The British government released another 79 million pounds last month for the installation of more closed circuit television (CCTV or spy camera) networks across the country. A Home Office document, insists that this latest initiative in the "blitz on crime and disorder" will "enable thousands of cameras to be installed and target residential crime hotspots, high street shopping centres, public transport networks and car parks, and hospital sites, as well as the popular tourist attraction of the New Forest."

The United Kingdom already has more CCTV cameras per person than any other country. The government seems determined to keep ahead of Europe and the USA in this respect, at least. If crime figures are used as a measure of effectiveness, it appears that CCTV policy is working. Significant reductions in crime and increases in arrests and prosecution have been reported across the country. One estate in the north east of England has seen a 46 percent reduction in reported crime since cameras were installed in a troublesome area. In Taunton, where six cameras were installed in town centre car parks, motor vehicle theft has fallen by more than 50 percent.

However, some opponents of the government's policy argue that there has been no overall decrease in crime and that many offences are merely being displaced to other areas; that police officers are being taken off the streets and replaced with cameras and remote monitoring stations, without serious thought about the consequences. If this is true, CCTV is just ineffective, low budget policing. The very technologies that promised to make war easy, bloodless and remote, but which failed on their own to beat Serbian armed forces in Kosovo, are similarly failing to make a real impact on crime at home. This new preference for CCTV marks the retreat of conventional beat policing from the areas that need it most.

Other critics of increased CCTV spending would proudly describe themselves as civil rights campaigners. "What right", they ask, "do the government, police or security contractors have to pry into the privacy of the individual, wherever he or she may be?" Ideological, emotional and legal concerns about privacy and personal liberty fuel anti-CCTV campaigns by groups such as Liberty and http://www.spy.org.uk. On 7th September, activists around the UK [sic] set out to publicise the intrusion of CCTV into the nation's public spaces through a campaign of pranks and protests. Teams of protesters performed in front of the cameras in lame imitation of Trigger Happy TV and Mark Thomas's shows. Their woefully amateur efforts may have achieved top billing on screens in CCTV monitoring rooms, with an audience of a few dozen usually bored, faintly amused, security personnel. However, the campaign failed to break into the mainstream media and consciousness of the wider public. Had you even heard about it until now?

Few people sympathise with the anti-CCTV movement's opposition to routine filming in public and private places. Indeed, a whole television entertainment genre is dependent on footage obtained in this way - shows such as The Worlds Worst Criminals, Caught in the Act and Police, Camera, Action rely heavily on CCTV and spy camera images. These prime time shows are usually held together by a sensationalist yet overtly moralising commentary by super-annuated newsreaders and coppers. This passes as justification for the voyeuristic, sensationalist spectacles they peddle to the couch-bound masses. The success of Big Brother across North America, Australasia, South Africa and Europe is firm evidence of the public's fascination and acceptance of surveillance, whatever its purpose.

This lack of concern is dangerous. If the blossoming of CCTV networks proceeds without proper checks and regulations we will, one day, find ourselves in a society where surveillance exceeds the nightmare level described in Orwell's seminal account of a totalitarian society, 1984.

Technology that can identify faces, car registration plates and even potentially criminal behaviour is either already available or in development. Newham council in inner city London has already deployed face recognition software that alerts police when known criminals appear on Green Street, in the centre of the borough. Northamptonshire police have upgraded the county's roadside CCTV network with number-plate recognition - the constabulary claim that since its introduction, over 150,000 pounds of stolen cars have been returned to their owners and 264 arrests have been made. The use of spy cameras is spreading into many other, more unusual locations. One bakery firm decided to install a camera inside an automated oven that cooked hundreds of Danish pastries every night. The reason - to investigate a periodic problem that caused the conveyor belt to jam inside the oven causing a ruined tangle of half-cooked pastry. The in-oven camera soon revealed the mechanical fault behind the problem and a simple solution was quickly found, saving thousands of pounds.

There is no legal obstacle that will stop every street, public building, school and shopping mall becoming studded with tiny cameras. It's unlikely that they'll ever appear inside private houses, but the networks may cover other types of accommodation - local authority housing, hospital wards, hotels and so on. With such a developed surveillance infrastructure, it would be easy to turn the United Kingdom into a totalitarian police state overnight, if the need or desire ever arose. This is the future that civil liberty groups have nightmares about. Their demands for a freeze on the installation of new cameras, fresh thinking about how to spend money to fight crime and new rules and regulations make sense if current trends seem to make a real Big Brother state inevitable. But who is listening? No, a smarter solution is required.

On the face of it, the blooming of thousands of cameras around public spaces across the country is a worrying development. It's a striking demonstration of the gap in trust between government and governed, rich and poor (most local authority CCTV schemes are used to to look after commercial property in one area while keeping another eye on the poor areas where the criminals that threaten this property are likely to come from). Despite concerns about privacy and unaccountable surveillance, I believe that the expansion of CCTV coverage should continue apace, but only under one very important condition: everybody should be able to access the live and archived footage that the network produces [...]

[Written by Tim Snaith and published on 7 October 2001 by I-Resign.]

The day after this article was posted, the New York Surveillance Camera Players sent Mr. Snaith the following letter:

There are almost as many serious factual errors in this passage [the one on the 7 September 2001 day of protest] as there are sentences!

1. The 7 Sept 2001 action involved groups of activists in 23 different cities in 8 different countries. The UK was only one of these countries.

2. The only 7s01-related protest in the entire UK was in Nottingham. Were you there? It wasn't broadcast on a webcam. If you weren't there in Nottingham, how are you able to judge the quality/sophistication of the performance?

3. The campaign was in fact widely publicized and commented upon -- mostly before but also after the actions and in several different languages:

In English: articles published by Salon; The San Francisco Chronicle; Reason; Wired; The State Press; and The Phoenix New Times.

In French: articles published by Planet Internet; ZDNet; and La Nouvel Observateur.

In German: articles published by Der Standard; Sat1; t-online; and Heise.

In Italian: article published by Neural.

In Spanish: articles published by Ciber Pais; Clarin; and Lanacion.

In Russian: article published by Netoscope.


You, sir, are a very incompetent journalist.

In response, Snaith had little to say worth repeating here, except for this incredibly arrogant remark about the media outlets that covered 7s01: "Yes, but none of these august organs are actually read by anyone who doesn't already use the Internet or have an opinion either way about CCTV."

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