“For your own safety and security” – Thoughts on CCTV surveillance in the UK

Earlier this week, I got into an argument over CCTV in the UK. As you may or may not know, it is nigh impossible, especially in London, to walk the streets without spotting at least one CCTV camera. Statistics aren’t clear on how many cameras actually exist, numbers ranging from 1.8 to over 4 million. The higher figures may be inaccurate as the methods by which they were obtained are somewhat unscientific. FullFact has tried an estimate here. The Guardian has further information on CCTV here. Yet, even if we take the lowest figure available, CCTV surveillance, especially in London, is pretty much ubiquitous.

Whether or not any number of cameras is justified when set against their use (or lack thereof) in preventing and solving crime – that was basically the question we were discussing. If ubiquitous CCTV coverage stops just one major crime, one side of the argument went, then by all means put as many cameras out there as you like. This may sound somewhat legitimate. After all, you cannot be against stopping major crime, can you? Of course you can’t, and I am not. However, the argument still makes me uncomfortable because it begs the question how much we should sacrifice our right to privacy, our right to be left alone and be free of state interference, in favour of security.

Throughout the discussion, I realised that I had little to substantiate the opposite side of the argument that the number of CCTV cameras in the UK is disproportionate and that ubiquitous surveillance isn’t justified given its limited effectiveness and worrying implications for civil rights and liberties. I do worry that a surveillance apparatus as ubiquitous as the one at work in the UK could quickly turn into a very bad thing indeed if it fell into the wrong hands. However, the idea that we might actually at some point have some nutter in charge that will use this apparatus to oppress us seems like a far-away threat to many, who trust our government and our police not to abuse the system.

Now, call me paranoid but if the NSA and GCHQ revelations have taught us anything, it is that we would do well not to simply believe anything we are being told about the benefits of mass surveillance – or its proportionate and lawful use.

During the argument I was having this week, several claims were made in support of the scope of CCTV surveillance in the UK and I was dismayed by my initial inability to meaningfully substantiate what I felt was my legitimate counter-argument.

I would like to try to do that now.


Claim #1: Real-time monitoring

One of the arguments in favour of CCTV was that cameras were monitored by real people in real time, that these people could directly intervene if they observed a crime and that this had been used effectively to prevent crime.

Now, take as an example the British Transport Police who operate a CCTV Hub in which fifty staff monitor cameras in real time. According to the BTP, this allows them to intervene directly when a crime is being committed.

The problem with real-time CCTV monitoring is, however, that only a small percentage of it is “proactive” (operators spotting incidents directly). Given that one operator monitors several cameras simultaneously (Nastaran Dadashi mentions a number of up to 16 cameras per operator, Craig Donald mentions numbers between 3 and 35 screens per operator), “reactive” monitoring (after the operator has been alerted to an incident) is much more heavily used because “[p]roactive surveillance seem [sic] impossible since “there are too many cameras and too few pairs of eyes to keep track of them” (Hogan, New Scientist, 2003, page 4). Reactive monitoring is what the BTP seems to mean when it maintains that its operators intervene in crime being committed at stations – responding to an alert about an incident occurring, i.e. “reacting” to an incident rather than preventing incidents from occurring at all by spotting suspicious behaviour proactively. Thus any impression that CCTV cameras are monitored proactively in real time and that operators can spot crime immediately and stop it from happening would not be quite accurate. Hina Keval and Martina Angela Sasse quote a 2005 study on the effectiveness on CCTV in the UK which found that

across several control rooms…there was a very high camera-to-operator and camera-to-monitor ratio, which reduced the “… probability of spotting an incident or providing usable recordings ”.

Arguably, a case can still be made that CCTV can lower police response times and help solving crimes and providing evidence. However, the direct interference with or deterrence of crime due to constant surveillance in real time seems doubtful, as even a single screen per operator “does not guarantee detection”.


Claim #2: CCTV cameras with microphones

Another argument in favour of CCTV that cropped up during the discussion was that there were a number of CCTV cameras with microphones on them that allowed the people watching in real time to let criminals know that they were watching.

I was astonished to find out that these really exist. Apparently, Middlesborough first installed cameras with loudspeakers in 2007 and the system was then extended across 20 boroughs. There also seem to be automated talking CCTV cameras one of which was deactivated in Camden because residents didn’t appreciate being told off by a robot, particularly not in American. Which makes sense because the idea seems more than a little ridiculous. For any person, let along your average adult citizen, to be told off by either a camera or an operator behind a camera for littering is disproportionate. What is more, it seems doubtful that a serious criminal would, in the heat of the moment, be deterred by a camera on a pole shouting at him. Rather, cameras with microphones that allow operators to, at worst, harass people represent an intervention by the state into people’s behaviour when they can reasonably expect to be left alone.

Combating things like “‘litter… drunk and disorderly behaviour, gangs congregating’” may sound good and well on paper but who exactly decides when having a few beers or meeting up with your mates constitutes antisocial or criminal behaviour? The scope for abuse is wide. Sarah Boyes reported in 2011 that she heard

many accounts of the cameras ‘telling people off’ for petty incidents. One woman described being shouted at when the end of her sausage roll broke off onto the floor, and was quite incredulous. A teenager told me how he was scolded for throwing a snowball. Another young person remembered friends being reprimanded one evening for boisterously paddling in the new fountain. One local employee remembered hearing a disembodied voice late one evening saying ‘stop urinating on McDonalds’, but when they looked they saw no apparent culprit…

Surely, at best this kind of thing is a waste of resources and money. At worst, it is a sign of the surveillance state going bonkers. Mind you, speaking of 2011: ubiquitous surveillance did little to stop the London riots, as Cory Doctorov has argued.

Also, it’s not like we didn’t have historical precedent (if perhaps not in the UK) of how quickly surveillance can turn against the people it is intended to protect. The Telegraph wasn’t wrong when it argued in 2009 that surveillance of the magnitude as it is conducted in the UK “would still be intolerable in countries with recent memories of totalitarian regimes” – and for good reason. It surely isn’t a coincidence that in many dystopias one of the controlling mechanisms of choice for totalitarian regimes is ubiquitous surveillance.


Claim #3: Effectiveness in preventing and solving crime

When most people think of CCTV being used in law enforcement they think of a string of high-profile crimes that have been solved or publicised with the help of footage…But CCTV has grown far beyond this.

Indeed, people arguing in favour of CCTV seem to do so under the impression that CCTV is hugely beneficial when solving or publicising major crime. And even if it isn’t, some seem to think that preventing even one major crime justifies the large number of cameras out there. Now, I would still argue that there is a problem with proportionality here.

Figures released in 2007 revealed that “that police are no more likely to catch offenders in areas with hundreds of cameras than in those with hardly any,” prompting the legitimate question “if some of [the] money [invested in CCTV] would not have been better spent on police officers” or “street lighting, which has been shown to cut crime by up to 20 per cent.”

The Guardian reported in 2008 that “[o]nly 3% of street robberies in London were solved using CCTV images.”

Interestingly, “the head of the Visual Images, Identifications and Detections Office (Viido) at New Scotland Yard” himself warned back then that CCTV was ineffective. Because of this, Scotland Yard was at the time engaged in efforts to “to try to boost conviction rates using CCTV evidence.” Again, what they were trying to do, was to use CCTV after a crime had been committed to hold the perpetrators to account. Which is fair enough, except, CCTV was “originally seen as a preventative measure” (emphasis added).

In 2009, information revealed in response to a request made under the freedom of information act alleged that “[f]or every 1,000 cameras in London, less than one crime is solved per year.”

You might argue that these figures date back a while and thus may not paint an accurate picture of CCTV and its uses today. Yet, in the year ending May 2013, it was reported that the London Metropolitan Police apparently failed to track a large percentage of CCTV footage, resulting, amongst other things, in a conviction rate of 14 per cent for rape. Now, you might argue that ubiquitous CCTV is warranted – and the 500 million spent on it, or estimated 20,000 (the starting salary of a police officer) per camera, well invested – if it stops only one rapist. However, when you consider that 86% of rapists aren’t convicted – or, in fact, deterred – by aid of CCTV, then perhaps it’s pertinent to ask the following questions:

  • Firstly, if CCTV isn’t of much help at all in over 80 per cent of cases, then do the remaining 20 per cent really warrant jeopardising innocent people’s anonymity in public spaces to the extent as it is happening at the moment?
  • Secondly, as apparently CCTV is of such little use in preventing and resolving violent crime, wouldn’t the money be better invested in things that do?

Even a leaflet issued by the College of Policing admits that the use of CCTV not only has a “small impact” (but significant, they say) on the detection and prevention of crime, but also that this impact is mostly observable in car crime (violation and theft). By contrast, CCTV has no significant impact on violent crime – i.e. the kind that does actual physical harm to people. So much for the rape argument. And while there is some cited evidence that CCTV aids crime and terrorism prevention, it is difficult to see the proportionality of millions of cameras – and the money spent on them – when looking at their documented overall (in)effectiveness.

What is even more disturbing are figures claiming that “technology employed in state-owned public places” accounts for “less than 5 per cent of the cameras in the country.” As to the remaining 95 per cent of cameras:

there are very few regulations over how CCTV is set up and run. Everyone has to comply with the Data Protection Act, but apart from that it is often a matter of guidelines rather than law.

At least what should surely be done is to inform people about “the intrusion” posed by HD CCTV cameras (a fact that tends to be conveniently omitted from pro-CCTV testimonies), and the lack of regulation to allow people to have their say on whether they are comfortable or happy with their privacy and anonymity being intruded on in such a way.


The inverse argument: abuse of surveillance powers

Which brings me right to the question of abuses or misuse of the technology. Now, I have already given a few examples above.

But how about a scheme that was, thankfully, scrapped in Birmingham a few years ago because the local population opposed it, arguing that a plan “by the West Midlands police to place several hundred CCTV cameras in part of Birmingham…was targeting the mainly Muslim local population,” funded, incidentally, “from a pot to combat terrorism”?

Different but equally pertinent questions about the use of CCTV by police were raised in the wake of the 2009 protests of the Israeli offensive in Gaza, when people were allegedly convicted based on edited CCTV footage while the police failed to investigate misdemeanours by its own officers.

Then there was the case of Mark Summerton and Kevin Judge, from Sefton Council, Merseyside, who were convicted for abuse of their powers as CCTV operators after “spying on a naked woman in her own home.” This thread on the Big Brother Watch website also makes for an interesting read on the subject.

There is also debate about CCTV being used to persecute minor offences, like in parking enforcement, when “[f]or many people, the original intent of CCTV proliferation was to improve security and reduce crime in public places.”

And even if you agree that CCTV could be used for offences that have nothing to do with major crime, there are a number of issues that arise. For example, Charles Farrier of No CCTV says: “We get people saying they parked a car with a disabled badge in the window and they incurred a fine because the camera couldn’t see the badge.”


And finally: human rights and civil liberties

Given that and concerns about the abuse of other police powers under RIPA, my lack of confidence in the powers that be is perhaps not entirely unjustified. Granted, the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice issued in 2003 demands that:

A public authority will be bound by the Human Rights Act 1998 and will therefore be required to demonstrate a pressing need when undertaking surveillance as this may interfere with the qualified right to respect for private and family life provided under Article 8 of the European Charter of Human Rights. This is the case whether or not that public authority is a relevant authority. A system operator who is not a public authority should nevertheless satisfy themselves that any surveillance is necessary and proportionate.

Necessary and proportionate – Recent and not-so-recent revelations hint that surveillance is anything but that it violates citizens’ rights to privacy and anonymity within the public sphere by jeopardizing both their liberty and dignity.


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