Somebody's watching you: Britain has embraced video surveillance with unquestioning enthusiasm. Patrick Matthews asks why

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The Independent Online
Ten years after 1984, at least one Orwellian vision appears to have come true. Britain, more than perhaps any other country, has become the home of video- camera surveillance. Whenever we walk our city streets or cruise the motorways, the chances are that someone, somewhere is watching us.

Last year, sales of closed circuit television equipment (CCTV) were worth pounds 90m. This year, that figure will grow by about 25 per cent, and the market is expected to continue expanding. Already, every Saturday, the cameras bringing football to a television audience are outnumbered by those panning across the crowds, looking for troublemakers.

The cameras, too, are becoming increasingly sophisticated; most are able to function in poor light and some can switch to infra-red operation at night. But the greatest technical advances have been made in coping with the flood of images that result. CCTV, after all, is intended as a substitute for human eyes, not as a system that requires an army of extra staff to monitor its output.

The recently opened Broadway Centre at Hammersmith, west London, has 56 cameras. Their use has already shown why most people, especially in the aftermath of the James Bulger case, welcome, rather than fear, CCTV. Last month, a woman was led through the centre by a man who had offered to direct her to a night bus, but who went on to rape her. His image on videotape offers the police their best lead.

Sue Gossedger, who controls the centre's cameras, directs much of her attention to cyclists who ride, rather than wheel, their bikes through the centre. At the touch of a switch, her disembodied voice emerges through a public address system asking the startled riders to dismount.

'Obviously you can't watch all 56 cameras all the time,' she says. 'You miss some things, but you see most of what's going on.'

Engineers from the installation company believe improvements could be made, however. 'It's difficult to stare at multiple pictures on a screen,' Guy Nixon, of Vicon Ltd, says. He is considering having software designed to make the cameras react automatically to certain events. Many doors and fire escapes in the complex are already alarmed through a separate system, with buzzers and software maps showing the location of 'intruders' (usually office workers innocently looking for a short cut to the car park).

Other research is well advanced on developing video cameras that can recognise as well as passively record. Police responsible for the M1 motorway in Leicestershire, for example, are running a scheme, first operated last year on the M20 in Kent, that automatically reads the numberplates of a speeding car and displays the number, together with the excess speed, on a roadside display.

At present the aim is just to shame the offender, but David Robertson, project director for consulting engineers Travers Morgan, says the next step will be to link the system to a database held, for instance, on the police national computer.

'The idea is that before you get home there will be a letter in the post to you containing either a warning or a prosecution for speeding. We'd suggest a warning letter as we're trying to develop it as a user-friendly system,' Mr Robertson says.

A friendly surveillance system may seem a contradiction in terms. But, as Ray Hilton, marketing manager for Philips Security Systems, acknowledges, public opinion in Britain has given his products an easy ride. 'To be honest, in other countries you just don't see the number of installations, the number of cameras.'

CCTV has been around since the Fifties. In its basic form, giving an extra pair of eyes to the owner of a convenience store, for example, it is hard to see it as an extension of Big Brother.

But systems are starting to be linked up, aided by fast digital video transmission. Many police stations have monitors linking them to cameras installed in city centres and shopping precincts. 'What this gives them is a way of looking at an incident and deciding if there's a need for a police presence,' Inspector Mike Gillett, of Scotland Yard's crime prevention department, says.

In the wake of two devastating IRA bomb attacks, City of London police are developing 'Camerawatch', designed to give them instant access to most of the privately operated CCTV systems in the Square Mile. Their so-called 'Ring of Steel' also limits vehicles to eight entry points into the City where cameras monitor and record numberplates and the faces of drivers and passengers. The numberplates, in future, will be read and stored automatically, as in the Leicestershire traffic speed scheme.

'There's obviously a bit role for these systems in intelligence gathering,' Mr Robertson says. 'An enormous amount of computing power would be needed to recognise features, for example, but it's certainly arrived for vehicle registrations using automatic number recognition.'

Disk storage may soon stop operators of security systems being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material. Multiplex recorders, which use a single VHS cassette, store the output of up to 16 cameras by sharing the frames between them. A special playback recorder is then programmed to skip from frame to frame to give a record, albeit jerky, of one camera at a time. But Dedicated Micros, a leading maker of mulitplex recorders, plans to store information on computer hard discs or CDs, with special database software to give rapid access.

Technology does not have to be used to invade privacy. Insp Gillett points out that city centre cameras are often programmed to look only at shops, but not through the windows of the flats above them. If the operators do pan upwards, this will be registered, giving the management an opportunity to call their security staff to account the following day.

But such restraint depends on good will, rather than a legal requirement. People have been pleased to see CCTV help to bring criminals to justice, and they like effective measures against terrorism. The IRA campaign is perhaps the main reason there has been little opposition from civil liberties groups, as has happened, for example, in Scandinavian cities.

But new technologies of data storage, transmission and recognition give CCTV a potential role in intelligence gathering as well as crime prevention and detection. Will people accept this? I asked Insp Gillett to explain the law regulating camera use and the collection of images. He smiled, spread his hands and shrugged his shoulders. There is none.

(Photograph omitted)

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