Next time, could it be you on display?

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The Independent Online
Surveillance cameras have spread like a mutating virus in the UK since the start of the 1990s, their advance unmatched in Europe and the US. This summer they enjoyed another first. After conquering city centres, car parks, football grounds and shopping malls they made an assault on the British inner-city estate.

As the cameras were installed on the streets of crime-ridden Scotswood in Newcastle, there was much rejoicing among the beleaguered locals. And who could blame them? Fantastic crime-cutting results have been recorded all over the country after the installation of closed circuit television systems.

Scotswood had only to look at nearby Hexham for a 17.3 per cent overall crime drop and to its own city centre for a 19 per cent reduction in assaults and a 40 per cent cut in car thefts. And who would deny the crucial part played by security videos in a series of high-profile cases - the Bulger murder, the capture of gay serial killer Colin Ireland and the IRA bombing of the City of London?

Liberty, the civil rights organisation, was one of Scotswood's few party poopers. Its familiar warning about invasions of privacy again rang hollow among those more interested in the concrete business of catching killers, muggers and burglars than the abstract notion of risks to individual freedoms.

In August Liberty had warned Scotswood that the extension of CCTV to housing estates was worrying, particularly when there were still no laws or statutory regulations to license or regulate its use. Yesterday Jon Bright, director of field operations for Crime Concern, a crime-prevention charity, said Caught in the Act!, released in time for Christmas, vindicated Liberty's stand and challenged Britain's peculiar complacency about civil liberties in connection with CCTV. His call for regulation was echoed by politicians from all parties.

Although there are no official figures on the extent of the CCTV revolution, no one denies its massive expansion. Two years ago CCTV sales were worth pounds 90m. Last year they were up 25 per cent with further expansion forecast. From Airdrie to Andover, no city centre is now too small for a crime-prevention system that has the Government's enthusiastic backing.

The Local Government Information Unit, which has also warned about the lack of regulation, admits it is hard to think of a council that has not installed a system. Last week ministers offered local councils and community groups pounds 15m to install 10,000 more cameras. It followed a similar pounds 5m project six months ago.

In the absence of a licensing system it is impossible to know how many private schemes are also operating. But so great is their proliferation that from the motorway to the shop changing-room you can now be caught on camera. And there are no laws to prevent the recorder doing what he pleases with your image on video.

Mr Bright says that European countries such as Holland - which chooses to take people off the dole to patrol crime blackspots rather than install yet more cameras - are "taken aback" by British enthusiasm for surveillance equipment. "Over the last two years in particular, surveillance cameras have really taken off. This country has decided that CCTV is going to be one of its main crime-prevention tools but people need to be reassured that things like this video cannot happen."

For the police the Goulding video is also a worrying development. When rumours about it first surfaced a few weeks ago Richard Thomas, chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers' committee on security cameras, warned it could undermine crime prevention's most powerful weapons. It could, he said, kill the goose that laid the golden egg. But Barrie Irving, director of the research organisation Police Foundation, believes British concerns about civil liberty - at their height in the 1960s and 1970s - will continue to be dwarfed by the fear of crime.

If the case does dampen public enthusiasm for CCTV Mr Bright will welcome time for reflection. "CCTV is the classic technological quick fix. It probably has been good for prevention and detection but it is not the panacea for all ills that the police and government might think. The big questions remain: are the improvements likely to fade over time and is crime displaced elsewhere?"

Liberty argues that the Government, though running a public campaign against red tape, must now act. "If an individual feels that their privacy has been breached there is presently no recourse in law," said a spokesman. "The Government has been insisting that a code of practice was enough - well it isn't. Anyone can set up a security system. You don't need to be licensed or registered. This is all part of a wider problem. The fact is that legislation is failing to keep pace with a whole range of technological advances."