Big Brother Always Watching in Britain, Where Surveillance Cameras Are King
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 around London.
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 soccer riot.
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 Parliament.
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 offenders.
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 dealers.
"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.
"There's an illusion that it makes people safe when it does no such thing," Brown said.