The Surveillance State

Full Fact recently researched the claim that “council-run CCTV cameras have trebled in the last ten years.” It established that FoI requests to all 428 UK Local Authorities resulted in a combined total of 59,753 council-run cameras in 2009 – more CCTV cameras per capita than any other European country. The best figure for 1999 was 21,000, likely an overestimate as it included planned cameras as well as extant ones. If you feel that the number of CCTV cameras surrounding us has been increasing to oppressive levels, the impression is not unfounded.

I can remember when CCTV was first introduced in this country. Initially, it was used primarily in large department stores, limited to locations in town centres and on London Underground routes. It’s hard to argue against measures to discourage crime and record evidence of specific incidents for use in prosecutions. But these days, it can feel as if the CCTV cameras are more ubiquitous than police officers.

There will always be those who could not care less whether or not they are filmed by a CCTV camera. But no-one likes being talked about behind their back, and who is to know what is going through the minds of our those doing the surveillance? Even when their observations are not officially recorded, comments on the observed must inevitably be shared by the watchers. You don’t have to have something to hide to want a right to privacy.

The potential exists for database records which the public know nothing about, compiled using images or related data from CCTV recordings. This may be speculation, but do you trust the state to tell you what they’re doing with your image?

Many authors, including George Orwell and Philip K. Dick, have predicted authoritarian societies in which all are watched, watching or both. The idea of the camera as a tool of social control is entrenched in our consciousness. And yet, we justify acceptance of increasingly oppressive surveillance on the basis that they help reduce crime. The huge expense of public money, the intrusion of privacy, the authoritarian overtones of the all-seeing eye of the state – all are tolerated as a means to an end. But a Home Office report released in 2002 indicated that CCTV has a negligible impact on reducing crime.

The expense is considerable, and all the more shocking in the light of recent scrutiny of public spending. Heather Brooke reveals that “a House of Lords report published in January this year estimated that during the 1990s the Home Office spent 78 per cent of its crime prevention funds – estimated to be in excess of £500 million – on CCTV”.

As for its efficacy:

According to the two meta-analyses of CCTV conducted for the Home Office and published in 2002 and 2005, video surveillance has had only limited impact on crime prevention and detection.

The most frequently cited and comprehensive review of CCTV is the detailed Home Office study by Professor Martin Gill and others, published in 2005. Gill and his team evaluated 14 CCTV systems around Britain and concluded: “Only two showed a statistically significant reduction relative to the control, and in one of these cases the change could be explained by the presence of confounding variables. Crime increased in seven areas but this could not be attributed to CCTV. The findings in these seven areas were inconclusive as a range of variables could account for the changes – including fluctuations in crime rates caused by seasonal, divisional and national trends and additional initiatives. ( Source)

Brooke suggests that government officials are seduced by a symbol of technological crime prevention which makes them seem to be “doing something”; and the symbol is apparently powerful enough to override the evidence.

Julian L Hawksworth

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