How average Briton is caught on camera 300 times a day

Maxine Frith,Social Affairs Correspondent
Monday 12 January 2004 01:00 GMT

Keep smiling - by the end of today your image may well have been captured on more than 300 surveillance cameras,mostly without you knowing it.

Keep smiling - by the end of today your image may well have been captured on more than 300 surveillance cameras,mostly without you knowing it.

Walk out of the house and a street CCTV system may be watching. Cameras can pick you up driving to work or on the train; your office may be under surveillance - your bank certainly will. Go to a shopping centre and your face will be stored dozens of times. Your local restaurant will record you picking up your takeaway and the leisure centre will snap you working out.

Surveillance cameras were first introduced to Britain in the 1950s when they were used to control traffic in major cities and towns. The use of CCTV really expanded in the late 1990s with the deregulation of planning processes, which made it easier for councils, shops and businesses to install cameras.

As crime - and fear of crime - became a major issue, John Major's government gave millions of pounds in Home Office grants to police forces and councils to install CCTV systems. Big grants for surveillance systems have continued under Tony Blair, particularly since the terrorist attacks of 11 September.

Barry Hugill, of the human rights group Liberty, said: "It has been the catch-all solution for government, councils and police - you get criticised for rising crime, so you put in some CCTV. It is something visible you can point to when you are asked what you are doing about crime. The two assumptions about CCTV have been that it reduces crime and that if you are not doing anything wrong, you don't have anything to worry about.

"This is incredible really, because there is no real evidence that it does reduce crime, and in Europe and America there has been real debate about people's right to privacy.Britain has more cameras than any other, anywhere else, but we are not even having a debate about the rights and wrongs of it."

Countries such as America, Canada and Germany have strict rules on where CCTV systems can be installed and how images of the public can be used. But it was only with the introduction of the Data Protection Act in 2000 that any legal controls for CCTV were put in place in Britain.

Under the law, there should be signs informing people that they are being filmed, and giving details of how to exercise the right to see footage of your own image. Before installing systems, councils or businesses must have a "legitimate basis" for cameras, such as preventing theft.

This means, for instance, that a council using CCTV to protect a municipal car park can only use the footage to help in a criminal investigation and should not pass it on to a third party, such as a newspaper, or use it for other reasons.

But civil liberties groups say regulation of CCTV is not strong enough and the rules are regularly broken. Liberty estimates that up to 70 per cent of surveillance systems in Britain are illegal in some way.

Professor Clive Norris, who carried out the latest assessment of CCTV coverage in Britain, said: "Often there is no sign that you are being filmed and no information on who to contact to see your footage. In some cities CCTV systems are being used as a way of social cleansing.

"A group of teenage boys in a shopping centre will be followed round by cameras simply because of their age and gender, not because they are doing anything wrong. Security guards will spot a tramp on camera and eject him from the centre because he looks scruffy.

"The argument always goes that individual privacy has to be weighed against the benefits to the community, but privacy should be an absolutely fundamental right."

There have been reports of security companies selling CCTV footage of people having sex in the street and last year, a British man was awarded £7,800 in damages after footage of him attempting suicide was given to newspapers and television companies. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that Geoffrey Peck's privacy had been violated after Brentwood Council in Essex passed film from their surveillance cameras to the press.

Mr Peck, 47, had tried to slash his wrists in Brentwood high street in 1996. He had become severely depressed after losing his job and learning his partner was terminally ill. He was found and led away by police but not charged with any crime. However, Mr Peck said his life was "shattered" when the council used the footage to publicise the success of CCTV cameras in preventing crime.

Even the crime reduction argument is now being seriously questioned. A Home Office study in 2002 found that more than half the CCTV schemes in city centres, housing estates and public transport have had no effect on the crime rate. Other research concluded that street lighting was seven times more effective than cameras in reducing crime.

Mr Hugill said: "I think if you asked most people, they would rather see a bobby on the beat than have cameras trained all over the street."



Packets of Gillette's Mach 3 razor - a favourite target of shoplifters because they are small but expensive - were fitted with microchips in supermarket trials last year. Every time a packet was picked up, the chip activated a small camera in the "smart shelf", which photographed the customer. Although Tesco insisted the exercise was for stock control and that "products are tagged, not customers", the microchips - called Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) labels - remain active over a range of five metres once the product leaves the store.


Oyster, the pre-paid smart card which allows travellers to glide through Tube ticket barriers and on and off buses, is not as seamless as it appears.

Every time the card passes over one of the 16,000 sensors, it sends out a signal recording the holder's whereabouts. Civil rights groups are concerned that data, which Transport for London says is designed to "improve the journey planning process", will be available to the police.

Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, has used surveillance technology to enforce his congestion charge scheme, and Oyster is being considered as the model for a London Citizen Card, enabling everything from library access to benefit claims.


Loyalty cards caught on in the 1990s, with all the main supermarkets launching their own version to reward regular customers with discounts and prizes, according to how much they spend. The idea was not a new one - for years, shoppers at the Co-op received stamps which entitled them to dividends. But by making an item-by-item note of every shopping basket, the store built up a profile of each shopper's tastes and could target them with offers.

Sainsbury's rebranded Nectar card, above, which can be used in other outlets, including Debenham's, has 11 million household members but Boots Advantage card is the market leader with 15 million holders.


The most advanced application of RFID, a microchip implant which can be used as a credit card, was launched in November by US firm Advanced Digital Solutions. A subdermal chip, the size of a grain of rice, is surgically implanted between the elbow and shoulder, and activated and powered by an instore reader device. This, the manufacturers claim, offers "a much more secure, tamper-proof and loss-proof solution." But campaigners in the US have warned that, if widely adopted, VeriPay could end up "creating the infrastructure for potential government surveillance".

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in