Maxine Frith – The Independent January 12, 2004
More than four million surveillance cameras monitor our every move, making Britain the most-watched nation in the world, research has revealed.
The number of closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras has quadrupled in the past three years, and there is now one for every 14 people in the UK. The increase is happening at twice the predicted rate, and it is believed that Britain accounts for one-fifth of all CCTV cameras worldwide. Estimates suggest that residents of a city such as London can each expect to be captured on CCTV cameras up to 300 times a day, and much of the filming breaches existing data guidelines.
Civil liberties groups complain that the rules governing the use of the cameras in Britain are the most lax in the world. They say that, in contrast to other countries, members of the public are often unaware they are being filmed, and are usually ignorant of the relevant regulations. They also argue that there is little evidence to support the contention that CCTV cameras lead to a reduction in crime rates.
Barry Hugill, a spokesman for the human rights and civil liberties organisation Liberty, said: "This proliferation of cameras is simply astounding. The use of CCTV has just exploded in the last few years, and what is terrifying is that we are alone in the world for not even having a debate about what it means for our privacy."
Professor Clive Norris, deputy director of the Centre for Criminological Research in Sheffield, presented the new research at an international conference on CCTV at Sheffield University on Saturday.
Professor Norris conducted a study in 2001 which predicted that the number of cameras would double from one million to two million by 2004. But his most recent study concludes that there are now "at least" 4,285,000 cameras in operation - double his earlier prediction.
There are no official government figures for the number of CCTV systems in Britain, but Professor Norris used a detailed study of surveillance cameras in London to calculate his figure.
The research formed part of a European-wide URBANEYE project on the use of CCTV.
Professor Norris said: "We are the most-watched nation in the world. One of the surprising findings was how much more control there is in other countries, such as America and France, compared to Britain.
"Other countries have been much more wary about CCTV, because of long-held concepts such as freedom of expression and assembly. These seem to be alien concepts in here."
The use of cameras to film people in the street is banned in Germany, Canada and several other countries. But it is accepted practice in Britain, which is alone in not having a privacy law that protects people against constant surveillance. The Data Protection Act states that the public has to be informed that CCTV systems are in operation, and be told how they can exercise their legal right to see their own footage. But civil rights groups said many councils, shops and businesses were failing to provide this information, and they estimated that up to 70 per of CCTVcamera operators were breaking the rules.
Some shopping-centre security guards use the cameras to track "socially undesirable" people, such as groups of teenage boys or rough sleepers, around stores, and then eject them even if they have done nothing wrong.
Professor Norris warned: "The use of these practices represents a shift from formal and legally regulated measures of crime control towards private and unaccountable justice."
Footage from the cameras has also been passed to newspapers and television companies without people's permission. Professor Norris said: "CCTV is generally seen as benign rather than as Big Brother-style surveillance.
"We need to have a much wider debate about exactly what CCTV is doing in terms of our privacy and our society.
"It is about much more than crime. It enables people to be tracked and monitored and harassed and socially excluded on the basis that they do not fit into the category of people that a council or shopping centre wants to see in a public space."
Over the past decade, the Home Office has handed out millions of pounds in grants to police forces and councils to install CCTV systems in the belief it will reduce and prevent crime. But Mr Hugill said: "All that CCTV does is shift the crime to another area for a bit, and then it returns. If you asked most people, they would rather see the Government spending the money on more police officers than on installing cameras, which do not appear to make much difference anyway."
Last updated 16/01/2006