Fear of crime makes UK most watched country in Europe

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The Independent Online

British people are living in greater fear of crime than any other European nation, an anxiety that is fuelling the massive increase in closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras, a two-year study has revealed.

British people are living in greater fear of crime than any other European nation, an anxiety that is fuelling the massive increase in closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras, a two-year study has revealed.

The preliminary findings by the European Commission's Urbaneye project, disclosed at a CCTV industry conference in Manchester, show that more than 90 per cent of Britons think high street CCTV cameras are a good thing, compared with 48 per cent in Germany, where the law governing their introduction is stricter, and just 24 per cent in Austria.

The number of CCTV cameras in Britain has quadrupled in the past three years to four million and Urbaneye shows that the majority of Britons consider them acceptable in virtually any location, from shopping centre walkways (90.5 per cent approval) to public toilets (52 per cent, compared with 16 per cent in Germany and 1.5 per cent in Austria).

Hidden cameras have a 67 per cent approval rate in Britain, compared with 37.4 per cent in Germany. In London, 66 per cent of people said they would welcome CCTV in their street and 47 per cent of people believe it protects against serious crime, compared with 25 per cent and 4 per cent respectively, in Vienna.

The researchers, whose conclusions also encompass Hungary, Norway, Denmark and Spain, say Britain's endemic fear of crime and acceptance of CCTV stems from IRA attacks on the mainland and crimes such as the murder in Liverpool of James Bulger, 11 years ago.

Eric Töpfer, from Berlin's Technical University, one of the lead scientists on the project, said: "In Germany, these kind of experiences have not been known and there is not the same fear of crime. The German experience of totalitarian regimes and abuse of power by the state have contributed to a suspicion of invasion which CCTV brings."

Although Germany has become more tolerant of CCTV since the 11 September attacks in America in 2001, its CCTV systems are small by comparison with Britain's. Few systems have more than 20 cameras and high street CCTVs must be operated by police.

Denmark is even more suspicious: a 20-year-old law prohibits high street systems, except those installed on a temporary basis by police. Britain, where there are 500-camera systems, is alone in having no privacy law to protect the public against surveillance.

The only country of those surveyed to install systems at a comparable rate is Hungary, which shares British anxiety about crime, according to the researchers. Mr Töpfer said: "Cuts to [Hungary's] welfare state system have exposed accentuated social divisions that already existed and bred criminality. This massive spread is a problem. If people are monitored by cameras and they don't know [about it] they may feel an insecurity [about how they should] act."

The introduction of more cameras than in any other nation has left the British CCTV industry unable to find enough operators to watch all the monitors and in need of computer technology to solve the problem.

The talk of the Manchester conference was a new piece of technology called the "anomaly detection system". This looks for movements, items or people which a statistical history tells it should not be there and sounds an alarm.

The technology is vitally needed. Britain's cameras are generating 10 million videotapes of CCTV footage a day, yet new research suggests that human CCTV operators absorb just 5 per cent of what they see after 22 minutes of work.

Stuart Daley, from the Hampshire-based subsidiary of Siemens, which has invented the device, said: "This will minimise false alarms and maximise real event detection."

The London boroughs of Redbridge and Camden are understood to be interested in the technology.

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