Closed Circuit Television (CCTV)

What is it?

Surely the most familiar threat to our civil liberties, CCTV is a ubiquitous presence in our towns and cities. It is broadly believed that the UK has the largest number of CCTV cameras per person of any country on the planet, with estimates suggesting that the total number stands at about 4.2 million (one for every 14 people). While these estimates are difficult to confirm, it’s clear that we are surveyed almost constantly in urban areas, both by police cameras and private ones.

What’s the history?

The first CCTV cameras were installed under the Third Reich in Germany (a clue, perhaps, to any alert leaders wanting to assess the nature of CCTV usage!) in 1942. They spread to the US by 1949; the first public network of CCTV cameras in an American city was installed in Olean, New York, in 1968. In the UK, King’s Lynn in Norfolk was the first town to install and operate CCTV in the town centre. Since then, CCTV has spread like wildfire. Poorly-supported claims that it reduces crime have led to an explosion in CCTV surveillance.

What are the aims?

As with every other part of this FAQ, there seems to be a stated, public ambition and a more sinister, covert one. The idea that CCTV reduces crime has gained such currency that many people accept its usage uncomplainingly. Yet, the evidence that it deters, prevents or aids in the detection of crime is scant. What it clearly does do is place the entire populace under surveillance, concentrating a great deal of power in the hands of a view and, in our view, fostering an atmosphere of suspicion. It’s also worth noting that far less invasive methods of crime prevention, such as improving street lighting, are at least as effective as CCTV.

What’s the current situation?

CCTV is currently subject to the barest of regulations, meaning that footage taken on CCTV can be posted to YouTube or otherwise shown publicly without infringing upon copyright. The Coalition has made vague noises about remedying that situation and, as with other civil liberties violations, has been slow to convert words into action. A website entitled Internet Eyes recently begun offering users the opportunity to win significant sums of cash by eying existing cameras and reporting behaviour they deemed suspicious. Clearly, a culture in which surveillance has reached a similar status to a gameshow has a lot of rethinking to do.

What problems does it cause me?

The oft-quoted idea that ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear’ is disingenuous and misleading. It seems clear to us that the constant, relentless use of CCTV creates the impression that we are all being watched, and stifles the spontaneous expression of humanity. So, if you find yourself unaccountably uncomfortable, perhaps it’s the sense of your privacy and freedom being invaded that is bothering you. At the very least, the paucity of evidence demonstrating any tangible benefits for CCTV means that public money, which could be spent on parks, schools, hospitals or other valuable services, is being diverted away from activities that benefit the community and towards activities that appear only to benefit a shadowy minority.

What does the future hold?

CCTV is another violation of civil liberties that has the potential to slip into outright science-fiction territory: everyone watching everyone, always on the lookout for the bounty that comes with turning one of our fellow human beings over to the authorities. If this scenario sounds excessive to you, take note of the Internet Eyes site mentioned above. It’s already happening. On the other hand, it’s possible that the heyday of CCTV is slipping by, and that our Coalition government (composed of two parties whose representatives have both expressed opposition to CCTV) will take the steps necessary to at least safeguard us against its misuse.

Resources

CCTV Wikipedia article

Article from the BBC about CCTV’s limitations as a crime deterrent

Article from the  London Evening Standard about the failure of CCTV to detect crime