One nation under CCTV

A Big Brother Watch report, released today, highlights that local councils have spent over £515 million on CCTV cameras over the last four years. But the price of surveillance is more than just money

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It is estimated that 20 percent of the world's CCTV cameras are in Britain
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Emma Carr
On 21 February 2012 10:17

A Big Brother Watch report, released today, highlights that local councils have spent over £515 million on CCTV cameras over the last four years – money which could have been spent on 4,000 new police Constables. Ask yourself, would you prefer more cameras on your street or police on the beat?

Like it or not, you’re stuck with the former. In fact, with 20 percent of the world’s CCTV cameras in Britain, Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras have become an inescapable feature on Britain’s streets.

Yet, there is little evidence to suggest that CCTV cameras actually prevent crimes from occurring. In London, it is estimated that on average, an individual may be recorded by over 300 different cameras in a single day. However, the Metropolitan Police’s own research has found that less than one crime was solved by every 1,000 cameras in the capital.

In an age of squeezed budgets, councils continue to pour huge amounts of money into technology that indiscriminately monitors us all as potential criminals, while the actual causes of crime go ignored. Britain has become one of the most ‘watched’ societies in the world, far outstripping some authoritarian regimes, and the fervour with which some groups defend their ‘right’ to monitor us all is a social ill that few would recognise as a sign of a healthy, civil society.

Big Brother Watch would welcome the introduction of a national CCTV Code of Practice; a key proposal in the Protection of Freedoms Bill. This poses a unique opportunity to share data and our research with ministers and help inform the debate around the effectiveness of CCTV.

We believe that local councils should have a responsibility to residents to regularly publish comprehensive data on CCTV cameras in the local area. There should be accessible information regarding whether CCTV cameras have been used in securing a conviction, and for what offences. This simple statistic would enable the public to see the true impact of CCTV, and ensure that the cameras are being used for crime-prevention reasons and would improve the debate around the effectiveness of CCTV.

Public bodies should also be required to publish the locations of their cameras. This simple publication would pose no significant administrative burden, as demonstrated by those authorities who already make this data available via the Ordinance Survey or GPS location of their cameras.

Creating transparency around CCTV would allow residents to make an informed decision about whether the level of surveillance is having a real impact on crime and would expose the flaws in camera deployment that currently exists. 

Big Brother Watch recognises that it is impossible to put a price on our privacy or our safety. But with this continued spending, running into half a billion pounds in just four years, councils are choosing to value posturing and rhetoric over evidence and results.

When decisions have been considered about shutting cameras down, local authorities have only considered the costs – with one even suggesting that they might charge the police to use the footage. When we stop and think about the cost of CCTV our own privacy and security should never be far from our minds. The price of surveillance is more than just money; it also threatens a fundamental part of a free and fair society.

Emma Carr is the Deputy Director of Big Brother Watch 

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