LONDON — Flipping through a photo album of a trip to London, few tourists will find they took 300 photographs of themselves. But that’s the number of times they were likely caught on close circuit television cameras in a single day in the British capital.
With more than 4 million CCTV cameras operating around the country, Britain has more video surveillance than anywhere else in the world.
Partially due to its history of attacks by the Irish Republican Army and now the ominous threat of international terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the surveillance network has expanded at a phenomenal rate in recent years.
Yet while government and police officials laud its success in cutting crime, civil rights groups want stiffer regulations to curb abuses.
Meantime, newspaper headlines warn that “Big Brother” is watching ordinary Britons as they make their way around the nation's cities and even stroll along its country roads.
In fact, it would be impossible to avoid all of the 96 cameras at Heathrow airport, 1,800 in train stations, 6,000 on the London Underground, 260 around parliament, 230 used for license plate recognition in the city center, and the dozens surveying West End streets.
In addition to public cameras, almost every business -– from the local kebab shop to Harrods department store – has its own private surveillance system. Selfridges, another renowned London store, has around 4,000 cameras.
While CCTV used to be limited to city and town centers, it is now being unrolled in small communities and in the countryside (to prevent and prosecute crimes like illegal dumping).
IRA attacks prompt Ring of Steel’s creation
The first coordinated use of public surveillance was introduced after the IRA exploded truck bombs in the City of London in the early 1990s’.
Following the deadly attacks, a so-called Ring of Steel, comprised of security checkpoints and cameras capable of automatically capturing vehicles’ license plates, was built around the financial district.
Shortly afterwards, camera surveillance quickly became the fastest-growing form of crime prevention in the country, with the government spending an estimated 170 million pounds (around $300 million) on CCTV systems over the last seven years, according to a spokesman for the Home Office.
There is now one camera for every 14 Britons living in London, according to research conducted for the Center for Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Hull.
“Videomation detection is the next step,” said Robert McAlister, the City of Westminster Projects and CCTV Manager.
The City of Westminster is the local authority for much of central London.
Already in use at some subway and bus stations, the “un-motion detectors” are computer programmed to scan an area for people or items that remain stationary for a suspicious amount of time.
“Videomation could be used at places vulnerable to a terrorist attack” such as the Prime Minister's residence at 10 Downing Street, said McAlister, noting their potential in detecting unattended bags or people scouting out an area for a future attack.
“A person could be stood at a bus stop surveying the area, but the (videomation’s) zone would be triggered if five or six buses go by and the person doesn’t move,” he said.
In addition to its use in fighting terrorism, British police frequently study and publicize CCTV imagery during investigations into conventional crimes.
When 22-year-old French national Amelie Delagrange was bludgeoned to death last month near her home in Twickenham, southwest London, police tracked her last moments using multiple CCTV images. They saw her leaving a wine bar at 9:39 p.m. on Aug. 19, getting on a bus, getting off it after missing her usual stop, asking at a bus garage for directions, and walking in front of a fish restaurant at 9:51 p.m., minutes before she was killed. While her case is still unsolved, CCTV images have aided in the capture and prosecution of other criminals.
“There aren’t specific figures which point to (how much crime has been prevented or prosecuted due to CCTV) but it is recognized as something that can aid police and help cut anti-social behavior,” a Home Office spokesman said, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
In the past three months, CCTV images have been crucial to investigations as varied as a 12-year-old robbing a store at gunpoint, the disappearance of a doctor, attacks by a serial rapist, a father and son hit by a train, laptops stolen from a school, and a soccer riot.
Rights groups warn of ‘false sense of security’
However, rights groups fear that the benefits of CCTV are overstated.
“We feel people are given a false sense of security,” said Barry Hugill, director of communications for civil rights group Liberty.
“The use of CCTV creates a myth; it has an emotional effect on people that says it helps stop attacks, rape, and sexual assault, which is false,” he said.
“It may help in securing convictions, but it doesn’t actually prevent the crime,” Hugil said.
Liberty also worries that Britons have not been properly informed of their rights regarding surveillance and that CCTV systems are not well regulated.
“The major objection is that Britain is the world leader in the use of cameras, and it’s happened without anyone really noticing,” Hugill said.
“It was a general shock to the people when they saw it in the newspapers,” he said, adding that the public was not given the option to debate or voice opposition to the installation of cameras across the country.
“We think the Data Protection Act needs to be looked at and possibly strengthened; there’s no doubt that the law is not implemented – we just don’t know how many illegal cameras there are.”
Loopholes in legislation
Under the U.K. Data Protection Act, signs must be posted on the perimeters of areas where cameras are used explaining that surveillance is being carried out and who is running it, according to Assistant Information Commissioner Jonathan Bamford.
Upon request by a member of the public, the owner of the CCTV system is obliged to provide a copy of the images in which the person is seen.
The owner can charge up to 10 pounds ($17.88) and has 40 days to provide the copy, or explain why the footage no longer exists. No-one should keep footage for more than 30 days, and cameras should be registered with the Information Commissioner’s Office.
However, small shops and private homes do not need to register their cameras, and there is no governing body or independent watchdog to monitor who views CCTV footage or what they do with it.
“The office of the information commissioner can investigate individual complaints, but we don’t have permission to walk in unannounced and demand to check; some places in Europe can do that, but we have to be invited,” Bamford said.
“We’ve just had a handful of complaints; there’s been instances where people were sacked for misusing CCTV,” he said, giving the example of someone “ringing a phone box near to where a pretty girl is standing to chat with her.”
Bamford also noted a case in which a 47-year-old man won $14,400 in damages last year following the public airing of CCTV footage of police preventing his suicide attempt.
Meantime, there have been incidents of nightclubs selling indecent footage of couples to TV stations, and the Trades Union Council has warned of a rise in the illegal use of cameras to monitor employee behavior.
There is also concern that the use of CCTV cameras in town centers is just displacing crime to other areas, not actually stopping it.
'Big sister' watches over Westminster
With headlines like “Big Brother always watching in Britain” frequently appearing in U.K. papers, McAlister, the City of Westminster projects and CCTV manager, said his council's system is “more big sister than big brother.”
“We’re not interested in spying on someone in the local café,” he said.
Below the Trocadero at Piccadilly Circus in central London, trained staff view more than a billion images taken on 100 cameras in a typical 12-hour shift in the Westminster control room.
Seated in front of a wall of images and a computerized map of the area, the staff can manually manipulate cameras set high above storefronts, zooming in on a person’s face or a car’s license plate from well over 100 feet away.
Westminster’s system, which watches over most of the main tourist attractions in London — Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Covent Garden, Oxford Street, and the West End theater district — is jointly owned by local authorities, the Metropolitan police, and an independent trust.
“If I’ve seen what I think is a crime, I press the incident button so it records in real time, and we transmit the pictures to the police and let them assess it,” said Tony Savage, who works in the control room. Savage can then follow the suspect until police reach him on the ground.
“We deal proactively with about 300 incidents a week,” McAlister said.
The jointly owned system is also protected by numerous checks and balances – all windows and doorways into private residences are blurred, staff must fill out a “regulatory investigative powers authorization” form before following a person, and members of the public with police security clearance make unannounced weekly inspections of the control room and can view all video footage, which is saved for 31 days.
Westminster views itself as a model for how CCTV can be used safely and effectively and has invited more than 10,000 visitors to see the system for themselves, including the Mayor of Baltimore, who is currently working to bring the same set-up to Maryland.
As the council begins to install the next generation of cameras — wireless CCTV that can be moved in less than an hour, allowing police to quickly target crime hotspots — McAlister said, “It’s important to continuously evaluate what your system is doing and why you’re doing it.”
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