Network: Big Brother really is watching you

It won't be long before our every move will be monitored by security cameras

A RECENT shopping trip to the hi-tech mecca that is London's Tottenham Court Road made me feel like a movie star from the black-and- white era. Not because I became colour blind after exposure to the Blade Runner-inspired neons so beloved of merchants, but because of the amount of closed-circuit TV cameras proudly deployed by the cutting-edge techno retailers.

In the space of a mile I got walk-on parts in at least 15 movies shot by shop-window CCTV. The gimmick works. I have witnessed a number of CCTV junkies pretending to look at the latest flat-panel monitor while in fact combing their hair and grinning to the camera. Some retailers have gone as far as installing a Webcam to cut costs.

Walking through town later that day, I counted no less than 126 locations with CCTV and those are only the ones I was aware of, as there are plenty of hidden cameras. Unfortunately, most of those were less amusing, as they were installed in shops, underground stations or public squares, where the output was not displayed for me to marvel at but secretly monitored by hidden control room operators.

Many UK towns and cities spend as much as pounds 1m of tax-payers' money on these things, but do they help prevent crime? According to research by Dr Clive Norris, of Hull University, the cameras are watching the wrong people in the wrong places. He has found that most of the CCTV cameras monitor young males, with a particular propensity for zooming in on black teenagers, and that arrests made as a result of CCTV monitoring were few - Dr Norris's research involved 592 hours of taping, only 12 arrests were made, and all were white males in their mid-twenties.

Further study from the Scottish Centre for Criminology found that virtually all claims of crime prevention due to the deployment of CCTV are false. Crimes of passion, offences involving drugs and alcohol and actions by professional criminals are not prevented by the cameras. However, after years of cost-cutting, the police have latched on to the technology as an answer to all their budget prayers. Replacing real police constables with cameras is an increasing trend. In the light of the rather low effectiveness of CCTV as a crime prevention tool, and further evidence that, in some cases, the installation of CCTV has actually been followed by an increase in crime, it is logical to suspect that the presence of a real policeman might have a more deterring impact than a small piece of plastic.

There is also the issue of the misuse of the millions of our images caught every day on security videotapes. Since digital videotape is a lot easier to search through, it's not difficult to imagine that these visual databases could soon be linked to databases containing your credit or tax records. Imagine a student applying for a grant but having his application rejected as he was caught on CCTV in a local pub working for "cash-in-hand", or, even worse, spotted by a high-street CCTV buying an expensive PC. Not every education minister would understand that such a purchase is not necessarily evidence of a fraudulent grant claim but might have come about after years of savings.

Or imagine parents being denied Child Benefit when CCTV footage obtained from Disneyland provided damning evidence that they spent hundreds of pounds riding Thunder Mountain and buying Mickey Mouse ears. Such automated blocking responses are likely to happen very soon. Since there are no laws to protect our visual data from misuse, the only way out would be a frequent trip to your local plastic surgeon.

If you have crossed Leicester Square recently, you may have found yourself photographed by Capital Radio's Webcam (http://www. capitalfm.co.uk/ street). And if you were accompanied by, say, a person to whom you were not married, the visual evidence could be used in future divorce proceedings. Capital Radio does not appear on the list of licensees of CCTV, and therefore the data captured by its Webcam is not subject to the Data Protection Act. A licensed CCTV system must be signposted, with its purpose and the owner of the camera stated, to ensure that you will not end up in a broadcast on Cops TV Live from Leicester Square.

Of course, there are great applications for Webcams; perhaps in the kitchen of your favourite Indian, to monitor the lethal levels of monosodium glutamate, in Chris Evans's bedroom or in the modem rooms of your Internet provider (to verify the disputed ratio of number of modems per 1,000 users).

But before we spend even more money on technology that is, at best, useless as crime prevention and, at worst, misused as a police cost-cutting measure, we should think long and hard about the possible Big Brother implications of letting technology run ahead of the law. In the meantime, send me your thoughts on visual data protection.

eva@never.com

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