The hi-tec network has been installed in more than 50 Cambridgeshire villages. In essence, anything out of the ordinary is noted and passed on to the police.
Chief Inspector Paul Styles of Cambridgeshire police, who introduced the scheme, asks people to look out for 'the presence of the unusual and the absence of the usual'.
Once, this was done by word of mouth. But now it is accomplished through second-hand PCs and modems - which allow computers and hence their operators to talk to each other via an ordinary telephone line. The equipment has been given or sold cheaply to representatives of the Neighbourhood Watch schemes.
Each time the representatives see or hear anything unusual, they type a message into their computers and send it to an electronic bulletin board - called Escan, based in Eaton Socon - which works much like the traditional village noticeboard. The board can then be read by other villagers with suitably equipped computers who can then warn their neighbours. The police also access this information and effectively use the villagers as extra pairs of eyes and ears. They also receive information from the police about criminal activity in the area and practical crime prevention information.
The scheme was conceived as an antidote to arrest the decline of Neighbourhood Watch schemes, which typically occurred after about three months of operation. People invariably embraced a new Neighbourhood Watch scheme, but then rapidly lost interest.
Chief Insp Styles thought this was because the police were unable to keep in effective contact with the watchers. So far his assumption has proved correct. In the first year of the scheme's operation, most of those involved have remained committed members.
While trawling through the Internet - the international computer network with more than 20 million interconnected computers - Chief Insp Styles came across the Escan operator, who agreed to set aside a portion of his computer's hard disk and to allow scheme members access to it.
Later, Eastern Electricity provided pounds 3,000 to extend the scheme, and Psion Dacom provided a batch of free modems, distributed among the residents.
Chief Insp Styles hoped the scheme - Camwatch - would keep the police and public in closer contact.
'It's designed to assist communication between the Neighbourhood Watch schemes and the police. Face-to-face communication is best but we just cannot afford it. With the e-mail (bulletin board) you can write something once and send it to everyone and they can get back to you if they want to.
'It also sends a message to the criminals. It says 'we haven't gone asleep - we're watching you guys'.'
But the scheme has begun to concern civil rights organisations. Atiya Lockwood, spokeswoman for the civil rights group Liberty, said: 'The main issue arising from this is that we have no statutory right to privacy.
'We welcome community initiatives but we are concerned about the information that's compiled about individuals without their knowledge or consent. Who has access to it? This kind of information seems so official once it's on computer. One villager told us that, 'before people may have called us curtain- twitching snoops but now it's official'.' Nick Mair, founder member of Camwatch, denied any information capable of compromising personal liberty was posted on to the bulletin board.
He said: 'The information is of a general intelligence nature. Thirty years ago the village bobby would have leant over the fence for a chat. Now the fence is 6ft high and the bobby is 40 miles away.'
The main concerns relate to infringing on rights of minorities - a charge Mr Mair denies. He said that if travellers, for instance, turned up in a village, the event would be reported.
'I wouldn't accept that is an infringement of their rights. We know travelling vagrants or gypsies tend to take with them an increase in local crime. If you get travellers moving into a village, petty crime increases.'
Huge amounts of information are generated by the Camwatch scheme - more than can usefully be used at present. Two members of the scheme are now tackling the problem head-on. They are writing their own software to analyse and correlate crime patterns, and also give a day-to-day breakdown of crime in specific areas using information generated by the scheme.
Chief Insp Styles said: 'They're doing with a 40 quid computer what we can't do, and have plans to do, with a million.'
Cambridgeshire police are also working, along with other forces, to develop software to analyse crime patterns and 'hot spots', something detectives would have known 20 years ago before the current crime wave took root.
Chief Insp Styles said: 'If people are committing crime they tend to stick with what they know. If they find that at 4pm they can go around the back of a house, kick in the door, and nick the video, they will keep on repeating that until they get caught.'
The scheme seems likely to be extended further. Camwatch, now encompassing about 50 villages in rural Cambridgeshire, has drawn about 70 inquiries from other Neighbourhood Watch groups and police forces across Britain.
Now there are plans to extend the plans to local schools - with the first, St Helen's in Bluntisham, going on line after Easter. Mr Mair said: 'The kids will become a conduit for us.'
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