Editorial: Watching the watchers

Opinion by Paul Fisher

A senior police officer has expressed his concern at the spread of CCTV cameras in the UK. He told the BBC that he feared an "Orwellian situation". Oh dear.

A senior police officer has expressed his concern at the spread of CCTV cameras in the UK. He told the BBC that he feared an "Orwellian situation". Oh dear.

Ian Readhead, the deputy chief constable of Hampshire, was commenting on the village of Stockbridge, where parish councillors spent £10,000 installing surveillance cameras. According to the Andover Advertiser, the cameras in question were actually requested by local traders back in 2002, as they felt they had become a soft target for thieves put off from surrounding towns already protected by CCTV.

Readhead's comments echo those of the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, who voiced concern earlier in the year in a report to the Home Affairs Committee. His report looked at the impact of IT in general on citizens' privacy, not just CCTV.

However, CCTV is the most visible manifestation of increased surveillance. The numbers are indeed quite staggering: an estimated 4.2 million cameras are in use, 20 per cent of the world's total. UK citizens are said to be caught on camera some 300 times a day.

But does this mean we should be fearful? Could a future totalitarian government abuse the surveillance infrastructure we have inadvertently set up to constantly spy on and control the population? Maybe, but that assumes that such a government could emerge in the UK and that all these CCTV systems are easily networked. We are some way from an "Orwellian state"; the horror of Nineteen Eighty-Four was that there was no escape from the eyes of the state, you were watched even in your home.

The effectiveness of CCTV is questionable in controlling crime, but it has undoubtedly been a useful tool, as in the capture of those suspected of plotting to bomb the London Underground on 21 July and identifying those that actually did on 7 July. And many of the travelling public feel reassured by the presence of cameras at stations and other public areas.

Still, it makes sense to exercise caution about the spread of CCTV - much of which has happened with little in the way of regulation - or, as the Information Commissioner is urging, at least introduce a code of conduct to impose some control. Today, an individual can install a camera on their house without recourse to any kind of legislation, which, given the myriad of other planning laws governing private dwellings, is surprising.

As camera systems go digital and can gather and store more data, regulation is needed to control access, storage and distribution of that data. For example, how long should footage be kept and who has a right to see it?

This may be necessary if CCTV is to keep the public safe while offering reassurance that the technology's increasing sophistication cannot be abused by government or anyone else. A wider debate may help enshrine civil rights in laws governing the use of public surveillance.

All that said, British people seem to behave just as badly in the presence of CCTV cameras as they do without them. Something that George Orwell, a man who believed passionately in the power of the human spirit, would probably take heart from.


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