Closed-circuit TV is now a part of the street furniture. The police (and the pornographers) are watching your every move. In our surveillance culture, is nothing private?
a prostitute delivers a desultory blow-job to a tired suit; a cat burglar ducks and dives with a grappling hook. It is another normal morning at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London's East End, and the team are reviewing the night's footage from the surveillance cameras installed over the gallery's doors 18 months ago. Nothing they have seen has been weirder than an occasion last Christmas when a derelict in a Santa hat sauntered up and, after a brief look up and down, stripped, flagellated himself with a stick and masturbated before re-robing. The gallery's closed circuit television system (CCTV), set up as part of the trend for electronic security, has revealed the existence of a low-life pageant in the alley alongside; its crespuscular players unaware of their performances.

As CCTV systems become as much part of the landscape as postboxes and telephone kiosks, we have all joined the legions of the watched. Mundane strolls through shopping centres or slow weaves back from pubs render us actors in a grainy low-resolution drama watched by an unknown audience of security forces in control rooms.

Inevitably, the footage from surveillance cameras has bled into the entertainment field. Following the successful video-verite of Police - Stop! and Executions - the first a compilation of police-videoed traffic violations, the second a selection of filmed slaughters - the same company released Caught in the Act last week, which depicted CCTV footage including a couple having sex in a lift. As with its predecessors, the producers claimed moral advantages in its viewing, but it was withdrawn from sale after only two days.

Nastier yet is the persistent allegation that surveillance operators have made bootleg tapes which show identifiable members of the public having open-air sex, and sold them on the pornography market. "Rumour has it that every operator has their personal top 20 clips," says Marjorie Bulos of South Bank University, London, who, with her colleague Chris Sarno, has undertaken two research projects about the effects of surveillance on the citizens of Sutton, Surrey. "It is difficult to prove, of course, as this would be a sacking offence." None the less, as amateur video imagery becomes common currency, the cheery consensual schadenfreude of You've Been Framed has bled into a darker voyeurism.

Given the burgeoning scale of electronic surveillance - last week, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, earmarked pounds 1.5m to expand CCTV - such abuses are only to be expected. The jauntily-cocked cameras on the sides of banks and warehouses that started to appear in the Eighties have been joined by an arsenal of CCTV schemes up and down the country, increasingly aided and abetted by Government grants, but often privately managed. Schools, shopping centres, industrial estates, suburbs, even beaches (in Bournemouth) all now lie under the beady scrutiny of the long lens.

Its applications are widening and becoming as insidious as they are ingenious. Housing estates are starting to use concierge systems whereby residents can spy on halls and walkways via a spare channel on their television sets.

Telephone boxes and cash machines have built-in cameras that record users' faces. Even fire engines are now equipped with hidden video cameras in order to identify that breed of arsonist who sticks around to enjoy the conflagration.

The UK's streets are now so close to Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four - "There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment" - that one might assume that the public would be howling against these electronic Stasi proliferating like poison ivy across our buildings and streets.

Yet apart from a few pockets of discontent, such as Birmingham's Labour council, which refused to sanction the extension of a CCTV scheme last year on "Big Brother" grounds, there seems to be complete indifference. Bulos and Sarno, having originally found a "vague uneasiness" about CCTV, interviewed a large sample of locals following a new scheme in Sutton and had to re-evaluate their earlier suspicions. "We searched very hard for dissenting voices and found very little," says Bulos. "The vast majority said that the extra safety is worth the trade-off in privacy."

Richard Thomas, deputy chief constable of Gwent and chairman of a working party on CCTV, says that when he started in 1985 he encountered much more public suspicion of CCTV. "Attitudes changed after the Bulger case and the Harrod's bombing, both of which were reliant on CCTV images," he says. "I think that people are used to it now, and it is an extremely useful police tool. But it only works with public consent." It seems that we now accept the utilitarian CCTV proposition: that it deters crime and helps to catch the guilty.

This is borne out in the few places to have crunched statistics. In council car parks in King's Lynn, thefts dropped from 207 in 1991 to none in 1994, post-CCTV. In Newcastle, the installation of a 16-camera system brought incidents of assault and wounding down by 20 per cent in three months. In Sutton, street crime was cut by almost 80 per cent upon introduction of CCTV. In Newcastle, there have been 800 arrests as a direct result of the city centre's 4-year-old CCTV scheme. And similar successes have been claimed for roadside cameras: though it is as yet unclear whether crimes are displaced elsewhere.

None the less, civil liberties groups raise many objections to CCTV in its present, semi-regulated form. "There's no mechanism for control and there are no controls on the people doing this," says Atiya Lockwood, spokeswoman for Liberty. "It is not enforceable, and there is no right to the images, so they can be sold off." Indeed, some police and local authority sources agree with Liberty, and there is pressure on CCTV operators to draw up a code of practice primarily to preserve the anonymity of the individual. "I don't think we'd release any more pictures except in exceptional circumstances," says Richard Thomas. "Our view is that the code of the Data Protection Act - that material is only used for the purposes it is gathered - should apply." Liberty has produced a long paper on video surveillance detailing its objections, much of which are on principles of privacy and accountability. More unusual, however, is its objection to the psychological effects on a population under the eye: "Video surveillance conflicts with the normal expectation that even in a public place not everything one does is watched by those in authority," it reads. "There is a real risk of a chilling effect which inhibits free expression and free association between people."

The fear of public spaces that CCTV manifests is actively encouraged for financial benefit, argues Andrew Puddephatt of Charter 88. "The security industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the country, and with the Government it has done much to foster the idea of public spaces as being fearful dumping grounds for marginal, disaffected people," he says. "The effect on society has been for us to think of public spaces as unacceptable places to be."

Whether CCTV induces feelings of paranoia or protection, its presence is bleeding into a veritable culture of surveillance. A clothing group has bought out an anti-identification parka: a garment with a special non-visibility hood that can truly be said to be pushing up the hemline of radical chic. And visual artists are finding the surveillance camera and its paranoia-infused imagery a source of dark intrigue. Two Newcastle artists, Pat Naldi and Wendy Kirkup, developed a video piece called Search in which they spliced together footage of a synchronised city walk in which they were always under surveillance, with the collaboration of the Northumbrian police. The artist Tim Head has been inspired by surveillance cameras since the l980s, intrigued by these wall-mounted structures that appeared as if "vultures on battlements" and he is convinced that they are changing the tissue of public life.

"They do something weird to you," he says. "You're being scrutinised but you don't know who by, and you can't tell how the film is being used. It's the sense of a secret private army. They lead to a feeling of lack of privacy in public spaces; and our lack of right to be there." As part of his research, Head returned the CCTV compliment and took hundreds of photos of cameras. "Quite often I was chased," he recalls. "They're paranoid."

Surveillance has enthused cultural theorists, who tend to refer back to the 18th-century legal philosopher Jeremy Bentham and his notion of the panopticon prison; the optimum design for spying on inmates. In the Seventies, Bentham's ideas were given a contemporary spin by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who argued that surveillance had inexorably changed the collective mindset. Since then, the post-modern theorist Paul Virilio has devoted much space to the ethics of CCTV, including the police strategy of seeing without being seen; the unknown fate of surveillance imagery; and the jumbling of information and entertainment: courts and police stations, he writes in The Vision Machine, have "little by little taken on the trappings of television studios".

But while the CCTV society might raise difficult issues about the politics of surveillance, as well as more intangible concerns about the effects on our identities, the cameras may also appeal to a banal part of our nature: that we like to be on television. In the film To Die For, Nicole Kidman asks her young high school protege whether she's ever been on TV, and she replies "in the shop". In this lack of discrimination between CCTV and entertainment lies an awful potential: that of the life unconsummated until seen on the small screen. Mind how you go and remember: don't have sex in the street unless you want to be filmed.