Postgraduate Lives: Gavin Smith student at Aberdeen University

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The Independent Online

Gavin Smith, 26, is writing a PhD on CCTV surveillance system operation, at the University of Aberdeen.

CCTV and video surveillance is one of the fastest growing industries in the UK. There are now around five million cameras and the UK is the most monitored nation on earth. Yet despite the vast numbers of cameras, only a handful of observational studies have been conducted within CCTV monitoring rooms and I thought we needed more research.

I've been looking at a variety of CCTV monitoring sites - I can't say where exactly because of data protection legislation. People usually become CCTV operators because they see an advert in a local paper, or hear about a position while working in the public sector, and they think it sounds interesting. But the job means endless hours watching images and as most shifts last 10 hours, that's a long time to be staring at television screens.

In general, an operator sits in front of a wall of around 10 to 100 screens. They can control any of the cameras and then view the images on a main monitor screen. In a sense they are directors: they capture live incidents; they look for the best view, the best image, the best facial shot. They are also under a lot of pressure to record good and clear footage that can be used in court as evidence; yet filming an ongoing incident can be difficult as things can happen quickly.

Training is very mixed, most is on the job, although the majority of police CCTV operators are sent on a two-day course at police college. The legal aspects of CCTV monitoring are very complex: how long can you survey someone? Can you use CCTV to look inside cars, often deemed a private space like the home?

Early findings from my research suggest that relationships between CCTV users are often strained owing to issues such as differing job priorities, notions of trust, inadequate resources, personality clashes, misunderstandings of job roles and high pressure situations. All these can weaken the effectiveness of surveillance. I've also found that the people principally being watched by CCTV are not as passive and weak as some assume. Many have become CCTV experts, learning and developing tactics to dodge and avoid the cameras. It's not a one-way relationship, those watched frequently show their awareness of the operators' gaze by gesticulating toward the camera with tongue-in-cheek thumbs up and other, ruder, gestures. But it's not always antagonistic.

Some operators also seem to subconsciously build relationships with those they are monitoring, about whom they know quite intimate details. Some operators have told me that when they pass certain individuals in the street, they feel like smiling at the person because they feel they know all about them.