Long lens of the law is `out of control'

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ATTEMPTS to control football hooliganism have had an unforeseen and undiscussed effect: the British have begun to accept electronic surveillance and covert policing as a normal part of daily life, two academics say.

Gary Armstrong, a social anthropologist at Hull University and Dr Dick Hobbs, a criminologist at the University of Durham, say that by the end of the century the deployment of closed circuit TV systems in particular will have spread from football grounds to thousands of public places, housing estates and shopping centres.

The proliferation of cameras, they say, raises important civil liberties questions. There are no agreed codes of practice or rules governing how such cameras can be used and no independent studies to establish whether surveillance works or not.

In "Tackled from Behind", one of a collection of essays entitled Football, violence and social identity, they argue that soccer hooliganism has allowed the police to introduce undercover methods and spying and eavesdropping equipment that would have been unacceptable if deployed in other areas of life.

"The policing of football supporters is a political issue which has seen the normalisation of surveillance and control without political protest," say the authors.

Extremely exaggerated claims have been made for the effectiveness of the new technology in reducing crowd disturbances, and for covert policing, where undercover officers infiltrate spectators and gangs, they claim.

Dr Hobbs said: "Anybody walking past a football ground on a Saturday afternoon or a Wednesday night is quite likely to be confronted with a police officer with a video recorder on his shoulder and he or she is likely to be filmed."

Fixed cameras inside grounds are also focussed outside, he said. "Quite recently there have been complaints by residents whose homes are adjacent to an industrial estate in the north of England that the cameras inside the estate can zoom in on their homes and bedrooms."

Dr Hobbs has even heard of a case, again in the North, where a fixed camera was installed by the police in a street where families were in a violent dispute involving child abuse.

Surveillance cameras have spread from football grounds to shopping centres. Now Dr Hobbs says smaller shopping centres are saying "give us the cameras and then we will be safe", and even individual streets are saying the same. "I think this is going to be the big story towards the end of the century - surveillance of us on our streets, in our places of work, when we go shopping and when we play. It's running like wildfire throughout our society and no one is checking it."

The theory that football hooliganism is an international organised conspiracy of right-wing groups, he says, needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Although what happened in Dublin 10 days ago was serious, there were no major injuries. It was only the disruption of a sporting event despite the way the media sold the story as a threat to the state.

Gary Armstrong, his co-author, is now employed on a long term study of the social effects of closed circuit television. He agrees that its use as an anti-crime device is mushrooming.

"The tactics employed at football, in particular this great emphasis on surveillance, will now become the norm in most town centres, and not only public places places. By the end of the century, it will probably be introduced into thousands of private places as well."

Nor, as far as he is aware, are there any guarantees that the mobile video recorders used by the police to film football crowds, will not be used on strikers, activists or environmentalists.

Every new industrial estate, supermarket and housing complex, Mr Armstrong says, will have closed circuit TV in its brochure as a selling point.

Malcolm George, Assistant Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, and secretary of the Association of Chief Police Officers public order sub-committee, says that a very senior level of authorisation is required if police wish to deploy cameras in a public place covertly.Much looser control is required for the overt deployment of cameras.

The installation of such cameras, he added, could save many thousands of pounds worth of criminal damage to property. He did not accept the police had used hooliganism to legitimise the use of surveillance.

Football, violence and social identity, Routledge , £12.99.