You've been framed!

Video cameras cut crime, but do they infringe our rights? The couple caught in the lift probably think so, writes Jonathan Glancey
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The Independent Online
Last month a security guard scanning the video screens linked to a CCTV (closed-circuit television) camera protecting an office block in Hove, Sussex, came face to face with a young man doing his best to steal ... the CCTV camera.

Quite why the thief wanted to steal a CCTV camera remains a mystery, yet there are many of us who must surely feel a twinge of sympathy for the bungling camera thief. What is more goading than one of these electronic spies following and recording our every movement and expression as we promenade innocently along a street?

The sharpest CCTVs are so acutely nosey that they can read a government health warning on a packet of Silk Cut 100 metres away. They can rotate through 360 degrees, peer around corners and see in the dark. So if, say, you are snogging someone you ought not to be snogging in a dark shop doorway imagining yourself free from detection, then beware.

Beware, too, those security firms, councils, police forces and other spy-happy bodies who have supplied choice security video off-cuts to clever producers such as Barrie Goulding. Mr Goulding's highly controversial CCTV video compilation Caught in the Act! went on sale yesterday. MPs and civil liberties groups are up in arms.

Diana Maddock, the Lib Dem spokeswoman for family affairs said yesterday: "that this sale has been allowed is a disgrace and will undermine the trust the public has in cameras designed to cut crime". Why? Because among sequences showing villains at work, Caught in the Act! also shows couples in supposedly secret sexual embraces.

Barrie Goulding is no stranger to video-shockers. Earlier this year he gained notoriety with Executions (21 gruesome executions, many for the delight and possibly edification of the public, from around the world). Two years ago, Mr Goulding and his partners made pounds 3.5m with Police Stop!, a video crammed with exciting police car chases and a few spectacular crashes thrown in.

"It's voyeuristic," says Mr Goulding of Caught in the Act! "I wouldn't deny that. And I will make money from it. But there is a message - who watches the watcher?" Mr Goulding claims that he wanted to go as far as possible in depicting scenes caught by CCTV cameras to fuel debate about the lack of safeguards to our privacy.

Spying on sexual adventurers is nothing new. I like the Larry cartoon that appeared in Private Eye: several men along an esplanade are offering views through telescopes: "Spot the lighthouse", "Ships at Sea" and "Views of the beach". The last, and by far the most popular, reads "Couple at it", at a slightly higher price.

The difference is that CCTV and its commercial spin off, the video-shocker, is very big business. Almost anywhere you go, from car parks and malls to public lavatories, "Big Brother"CCTV camera is watching you; there are even spy cameras watching me type this article.

Defenders of CCTV claim cameras have helped to cut crime and arrest criminals. Think of the James Bulger case. True, the spy cameras did not prevent James's abduction, yet, without the grainy faces caught on video might his killers still be free?

During 1995, 10,000 spy cameras have been installed, or are said by police to have been installed in Britain's high streets in a bid to cut escalating urban crime. They have even been the subject of debate in London's genteel Hampstead Garden Suburb; a CCTV "spy" centre is to be located in a former public lavatory. This, despite what it sounds, is to keep an eye on car thieves who comb the chic streets roundabout in search of the latest BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes.

These applications of CCTV sound fine in practice. But what about the principle? Who wants to live in a society where everyone and everything is filmed and what is true is what is seen on film? Gone are the days when you could scratch, grimace and rearrange your hair riding in a lift. Today, as likely as not, someone will be watching.

Someone will be watching, too, if you take part in a demonstration (the police are as video-potty as Japanese tourists) and in future, police, government agencies and private companies will make increasing use of CFR (computerised face recognition), a camera system that scans faces in a crowd at a rate of 20 a second, then matches these to databanks of up to 1 million mugshots. Rounding up the usual suspects will never have been easier.

Such systems might be designed to control crime, but in the wrong hands, they are in danger of controlling our lives. Ride a bicycle into the brash post-modern Broadway Centre in Hammersmith, west London and a woman's voice will order you to dismount. A camera has followed you, you have been watched and corrected. Now, if your face happened to be stored, a repeat performance could lead to an easy prosecution.

Most of us commit frequent but petty crimes and offences (slight speeding, cycling where we shouldn't, parking where we shouldn't, trespassing and so on) that, although unlawful, cause no harm. No one sees us, no one cares, no crime is reported and none condemned.

Equally, who has not snogged in a dark shop front, momentarily freed from a state of civic grace? And even if you haven't, wouldn't you still defend people's freedom to be left alone from prying eyes? Spy cameras might make us safer, slower and stiffer, but they do nothing to make us free.