They'll be watching you

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The Independent Culture
A MAN walks down a busy high street on a Saturday afternoon. He is wearing a white baseball cap and he is carrying a sports bag. Because this high street is Brixton High Street, a road that has too often been the scene of muggings, murders, break-ins, hit-and-run accidents, riots and lootings, his movements have been recorded by 23 closed-circuit television cameras. After hundreds of hours spent studying the film from these cameras, the image of this man is released by the police in connection with the Brixton nail bombing.

Within nine hours of identification by a member of the public, a man is arrested. A white baseball cap, several similar sports bags and the means of making nail bombs are found in his home.

A woman browses in a shopping mall on a Monday morning. She purchases an ink cartridge for her fax machine. This, too, is footage released by the police, but footage of a known victim, not a suspected perpetrator. There is no closed-circuit image of her leaving her car and walking towards her front door, no footage of her killer raising his gun, because she lives in a quiet residential avenue, an area that is not considered a hot-spot for criminal activity.

The release of film of Jill Dando shopping in King's Mall, Hammersmith, on the morning of her death suggests that the police are desperately in need of new leads in the investigation of her murder. And while the irony involved in her presenting of Crimewatch has already been exhaustively noted, the fact that the CCTV pictures of her last hours are unlikely to yield results from the public she appealed to so regularly herself is a bitter one.

Nevertheless, both of these cases highlight the degree to which the police have come to rely on CCTV to combat crime, and also hasten into being a future in which, almost inevitably, cameras will stand sentinel on every street in the country.

Already there are enough cameras in use to make this possible. There are now more than a million CCTV cameras in operation, one for every 60 people in the country. This makes us the most watched-over population in the world. In March, Jack Straw announced a three-year plan to tackle crime rates, pledging pounds 170m to finance further CCTV systems across Britain. Although areas with a history of high crime rates will be given priority in the distribution of grants, public support for CCTV is so high that soon those without the reassurance of cameras on their streets will be the ones who are left feeling vulnerable. And rightly so. While league football grounds embraced CCTV early and have had great success in controlling crime within their stadiums as a result, there are indications that the troublemakers are turning their attention to non-league grounds, where the purchase of surveillance equipment has not been financially viable.

And while there is something creepy about the idea that we are watched and recorded from the moment we leave our homes until the moment we shut the front door behind us (and sometimes beyond), the fact is that this kind of technology is here to stay. This is why CCTV exercises civil liberties groups so much. They can see it's an immovable force and one that, like any other, will achieve increasing momentum. And they can see that we are indeed willing to relinquish our privacy in order to be safe from crime. But they can also see that voyeurism in itself is a threat to liberty, and that there are new dangers awaiting us as we rush to stamp out the old ones.

Setting aside the worrying fact that research has shown CCTV identification to be far less than 100 per cent reliable, the mind boggles after just a few minutes' thought about the practical implications of running the kind of massive public surveillance system that is already largely in place.

First, for these systems to be of use in preventing crime rather than in apprehending it, the cameras have to be monitored. Since we already have at least a million cameras, for the footage to be watched at all times hundreds of thousands of people must be involved in surveying us.

While the police assure us that everyone watching these monitors is heavily vetted, civil rights groups confirm that this work does attract a minority of people whose motives are questionable.

For some, this doesn't matter. David Brin, in a book called The Transparent Society, argued that we should embrace surveillance technology, accepting that no one in a healthy society should be up to anything dodgy anyway. But this view seems overly idealistic, and certainly is not one that would be of any comfort to Geoffrey Peak. His attempted suicide was picked up on a Brentwood Council CCTV camera and passed to the broadcast media. This man had just lost his job and been told that his wife had a terminal illness. His claim that the screening of his lowest moment on the BBC's Crime Beat was a gross infringement of his privacy was not upheld in a British court.

However, the Government has indicated that it is not happy with this kind of exposure, and has discussed the possibility of a complete ban on the use of CCTV footage for entertainment purposes.

While this is fervently to be hoped for, it tackles only the most public and blatant of the abuses that all of this footage can fall prey to. Again, the mind reels at the thought of a million cameras recording all day and all night, watched by hundreds of thousands of people and put to heaven knows what future use.

The present law is such that if someone manages to install a CCTV camera in your house in order to watch you, they cannot be prosecuted if they didn't trespass while installing the equipment. This loophole - which has been widely exploited by teched-up peeping Toms - remains open largely to protect the intelligence activities of the police, who have the right to install hidden cameras on private property. This procedure has recently been tightened up, so that the police must now get permission from one of seven independent commissioners before a surveillance operation can be undertaken.

In itself it may not seem like a significant piece of legislation, but my belief is that it is only from here that we can move forward sensibly.

At present most CCTV operations are run privately, with the support of the police. This means that there is little or no control over the sale of this equipment, and no need for anyone to declare why they are buying it or what use they are putting it to.

While night-clubs frequently invest in CCTV systems, there was a particularly nasty rumour floating around the London club scene recently which claimed that hidden cameras in one club's ladies' loos were being transmitted live into its VIP lounge.

But despite the obvious opportunities for abuse, the Government has given the green light to the further proliferation of private security companies playing a part in crime prevention and detection, even though there are already an estimated 270,000 people outside the public services who are involved in this type of work.

Meanwhile, numbers of police officers continue to fall and the financing of the police force continues to be squeezed as the demands of new technology make policing more expensive.

So at the very time when our state law-enforcement agencies have the opportunity to make a leap forward in crime prevention, the means by which they may be able to do so are falling without their control. What is needed is a centralised agency, itself independently monitored, which can take control of this proliferation of intrusive though irresistible material as well as the technology by which it is procured.

Surveillance itself has to be surveyed. Otherwise we're simply hastening the day when there are a million images of all of us snaking around in the world, and our privacy is being abused in ways that - if we're lucky - we'll never even dream about.