By Jane Wardell, The Associated Press
LONDON (AP) -- British headlines tell you someone's always watching:
"CCTV hunt for sex fiend."
"Call for CCTV to deter prostitutes."
"CCTV images out on Croydon football riots."
And it's true. An estimated 4.2 million CCTVs, or closed-circuit
television cameras, observe as people in Britain go about their
business, from getting on a bus to lining up at the bank to driving
The phenomenon is enabled by the arrival of digital video, cheap
memory and sophisticated software. And Britain is acknowledged as the
world leader of Orwellian surveillance -- perhaps because it has the
experience of Irish terrorism, and is on guard for even worse today.
The authorities claim the cameras deter crime, and despite some
claims to the contrary and the outrage of civil libertarians, the
public generally seems comfortable with being monitored.
In the past two months, British police used or publicized CCTV
imagery during investigations into 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
Cameras loom over city centers, shopping malls, train stations,
university grounds, public parks, beaches, car parks, airports,
offices and schools.
"Britain, almost without anyone noticing, has become the surveillance
capital possibly of the world, certainly of Europe," said Barry
Hugill, a spokesman for rights group Liberty.
In London, train stations have 1,800 CCTV cameras, the biggest such
system in Europe, according to the British Transport Police. There
are more than 6,000 cameras in the London Underground and 260 around
It's estimated that the average Briton is scrutinized by 300 cameras a day.
"The uses are absolutely phenomenal. In some places, there are
cameras in schools in the classroom so parents can be shown the
footage if a child misbehaves," said a satisfied Peter Fry, a
spokesman for the CCTV industry.
Petrol stations are testing automatic number plate recognition (ANPR)
to catch people who fill up but don't pay. ANPR is also used to
enforce London's five-pound (US$9, euro7.50) "congestion charge" for
vehicles entering the city center. A police database scans license
plate numbers for everything from suspected terrorists to traffic
Other CCTV networks are using anomaly recognition -- software that
instructs the cameras to pick up unusual activity.
"They can identify something, like a bag in an airport, that
shouldn't be part of the scene," said Fry.
It's agreed that the ability to store images digitally -- constantly
becoming cheaper, and at ever-increasing volumes that would have
seemed fantastical a few years ago -- has played a key role in the
mushrooming of the industry.
An earlier form of CCTV -- back in the day of videotapes monitored,
changed, and rewound by actual humans -- was embraced in Britain
after two deadly IRA bombings in London in 1992 and 1993.
Poor-quality CCTV photos of the 1993 abduction of toddler Jamie
Bulger in a shopping mall by two 10-year-old boys later convicted of
his murder also gripped the public.
Now Britain is beginning to export its expertise. Fry's industry
group has just incorporated in the United States, and reports
particular interest from universities and schools.
Britain contributed to the network of more than 1,000 cameras
watching over the Athens Olympic Games. The London-based Autonomy
Corp., whose clients include the U.S. National Security Agency,
provided technology that parses words and phrases collected by
surveillance cameras and in communications traffic.
Still, in continental Europe and the rest of the world the technology
is viewed with more suspicion. Germany and Canada currently ban the
use of street cameras. In the United States, CCTV is not banned but
is not widely used outside airports and casinos.
In Britain, too, cameras have proved deeply unpopular when they're
used to enforce speed limits, and some have been vandalized. Fry said
that polls by his group routinely show that around 95 percent of the
public support CCTV use for crime prevention.
Residents of West Reading, about an hour's drive west of London, have
been clamoring for more CCTV to scare off prostitutes and drug
"Instead of being perceived as an Orwellian intrusion, the cameras in
Britain ... were hailed as the people's technology, a friendly eye in
the sky, not Big Brother but a kindly and watchful uncle or aunt,"
American author Jeffrey Rosen he wrote in his book, "The Naked Lunch,
Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age."
But there have been problems.
Last year, a 47-year-old man won 8,000 pounds (US$14,400, euro12,000)
in damages following public airing of CCTV footage of police
preventing his suicide attempt. There have also been incidents of
nightclubs selling footage of couples having sex to TV stations. The
Trades Union Council has warned of a rise in the illegal use of
cameras to monitor employee behavior.
Ian Brown, a researcher at the Foundation for Information Policy
Research, said CCTV has been shown to work only in detecting car
theft and shoplifting. It doesn't prevent rape or assault, he said.
A study by crime reduction charity NACRO suggested that CCTV reduced
crime by 3 percent to 4 percent while better street lighting led to a
20 percent reduction.
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"There's an illusion that it makes people safe when it does no such
thing," Brown said.