The British government released another £79 million last month for the installation of more closed circuit television (CCTV or spy camera) networks across the country. A Home Office document , insists that this latest initiative in the "blitz on crime and disorder" will "enable thousands of cameras to be installed and target residential crime hotspots, high street shopping centres, public transport networks and car parks, and hospital sites, as well as the popular tourist attraction of the New Forest."
The United Kingdom already has more CCTV cameras per person than any other country. The government seems determined to keep ahead of Europe and the USA in this respect, at least. If crime figures are used as a measure of effectiveness, it appears that CCTV policy is working. Significant reductions in crime and increases in arrests and prosecution have been reported across the country. One estate in the north east of England has seen a 46% reduction in reported crime since cameras were installed in a troublesome area. In Taunton, where six cameras were installed in town centre car parks, motor vehicle theft has fallen by more than 50%.
However, some opponents of the government's policy argue that there has been no overall decrease in crime and that many offences are merely being displaced to other areas; that police officers are being taken off the streets and replaced with cameras and remote monitoring stations, without serious thought about the consequences. If this is true, CCTV is just ineffective, low budget policing. The very technologies that promised to make war easy, bloodless and remote, but which failed on their own to beat Serbian armed forces in Kosovo, are similarly failing to make a real impact on crime at home. This new preference for CCTV marks the retreat of conventional beat policing from the areas that need it most.
Other critics of increased CCTV spending would proudly describe themselves as civil rights campaigners. "What right", they ask, "do the government, police or security contractors have to pry into the privacy of the individual, wherever he or she may be?" Ideological, emotional and legal concerns about privacy and personal liberty fuel anti-CCTV campaigns by groups such as Liberty and http://www.spy.org.uk . On 7th September, activists around the UK set out to publicise the intrusion of CCTV into the nation's public spaces through a campaign of pranks and protests . Teams of protesters performed in front of the cameras in lame imitation of Trigger Happy TV and Mark Thomas's shows. Their woefully amateur efforts may have achieved top billing on screens in CCTV monitoring rooms, with an audience of a few dozen usually bored, faintly amused, security personnel. However, the campaign failed to break into the mainstream media and consciousness of the wider public. Had you even heard about it until now?
Few people sympathise with the anti-CCTV movement's opposition to routinel filming in public and private places. Indeed, a whole television entertainment genre is dependent on footage obtained in this way - shows such as The Worlds Worst Criminals , Caught in the Act and Police, Camera, Action rely heavily on CCTV and spy camera images. These prime time shows are usually held together by a sensationalist yet overtly moralising commentary by super-annuated newsreaders and coppers. This passes as justification for the voyeuristic, sensationalist spectacles they peddle to the couch-bound masses. The success of Big Brother across North America, Australasia, South Africa and Europe is firm evidence of the public's fascination and acceptance of surveillance, whatever its purpose.
This lack of concern is dangerous. If the blossoming of CCTV networks proceeds without proper checks and regulations we will, one day, find ourselves in a society where surveillance exceeds the nightmare level described in Orwell's seminal account of a totalitarian society, 1984 .
Technology that can identify faces, car registration plates and even potentially criminal behaviour is either already available or in development. Newham council in inner city London has already deployed face recognition software that alerts police when known criminals appear on Green Street , in the centre of the borough. Northamptonshire police have upgraded the county's roadside CCTV network with number-plate recognition - the constabulary claim that since its introduction, over £150,000 of stolen cars have been returned to their owners and 264 arrests have been made. The use of spy cameras is spreading into many other, more unusual locations. One bakery firm decided to install a camera inside an automated oven that cooked hundreds of Danish pastries every night. The reason - to investigate a periodic problem that caused the conveyor belt to jam inside the oven causing a ruined tangle of half-cooked pastry. The in-oven camera soon revealed the mechanical fault behind the problem and a simple solution was quickly found, saving thousands of pounds.
There is no legal obstacle that will stop every street, public building, school and shopping mall becoming studded with tiny cameras. It's unlikely that they'll ever appear inside private houses, but the networks may cover other types of accommodation - local authority housing, hospital wards, hotels and so on. With such a developed surveillance infrastructure, it would be easy to turn the United Kingdom into a totalitarian police state overnight , if the need or desire ever arose. This is the future that civil liberty groups have nightmares about. Their demands for a freeze on the installation of new cameras, fresh thinking about how to spend money to fight crime and new rules and regulations make sense if current trends seem to make a real Big Brother state inevitable. But who is listening? No, a smarter solution is required.
On the face of it, the blooming of thousands of cameras around public spaces across the country is a worrying development. It's a striking demonstration of the gap in trust between government and governed, rich and poor (most local authority CCTV schemes are used to to look after commercial property in one area while keeping another eye on the poor areas where the criminals that threaten this property are likely to come from). Despite concerns about privacy and unaccountable surveillance, I believe that the expansion of CCTV coverage should continue apace, but only under one very important condition: everybody should be able to access the live and archived footage that the network produces.
Some years ago I read Mirror Worlds by David Gelernter, a computer scientist working at Yale. His book predicted the extent and scope of the World Wide Web that would explode nearly half a decade later and went on to describe many other ideas about the future of computing and its interface with society. These ideas met with fierce resistance - he was the recipient of a parcel bomb sent by Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and spent much of the mid-1990s recovering from his injuries. What disturbed and motivated Kaczynski in this instance was Gelernter's vision of a future in which computer simulation of society which would become so accurate that it would behave as a direct, two-way gateway to the real towns and cities, road networks and utilities that were being simulated (the world wide web and Internet have gone only a small way towards realising this grand information architecture). The Unabomber could see no sane reason for wanting to do any of this, other than the urge to keep the less desirable, rebellious or wealthy members of society in check. He saw it as the end of humanity's freedom. But is this necessarily the case?
I want to try to imagine a world, or at least a city, where there is complete video coverage of all the streets, road junctions, public places and parks. I suspect this is the scenario that law-enforcement agencies and contractors would also like to see happening one day - but they want to keep it all to themselves. The surveillance industry and the law enforcers who would act upon it would be made immensely powerful by exclusive access to all this information. Therefore, to avoid too much power and knowledge accumulating in too few hands, I think it is absolutely imperative that everybody has access to video coverage of their city.
The quotation at the beginning of this article is taken from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and does not refer to CCTV coverage. No, it is the author's impression of the new-fangled electrical illumination of London at the end of the 19th century. The Victorian equivalent of civil liberty campaigners, including Stevenson himself, argued that street lighting was a threat to the individual citizen's liberty. Yes, strictly speaking, street lighting is an invasion of privacy, but only if you rely on the dark to go about your business. Realistically, the only people to operate under the cover of darkness are criminals and soldiers - two groups most of us would rather see off of our streets at night. I envision total video coverage as the modern equivalent of the Victorian street lighting revolution - it will be another public utility that will bring about enormous benefits. Society will be newly illuminated, opened and self-aware - but if and only if access to the network is available to everyone who wants or requires it.
There would be a huge public outcry if street lighting was switched off and removed. During the blackout of the Second World War, road deaths and crime soared when darkness took over. I expect that there would be similar protests about going back to the days before a universal public video camera network was introduced, once people had realised the advantages of being able to see their city with new eyes. Our reliance on unrestricted access to video coverage of our towns and cities would evolve rapidly and become an essential part of economic and social activity in very few years. Here are some of the possibilities:
Gelernter imagines scenarios where traffic flow is examined and regulated by a system of cameras and sensors that interact with traffic management signs and signals. What if the video output of such a system could be fed back, instantly, to the vehicles that were using those roads? Drivers could decide which routes were favourable that day and which were being clogged by heavy traffic, road works or accidents. Such an end-to-end traffic management system would introduce a new level of responsiveness and flexibility to the system. Drivers would surely benefit from having an idea of what is 'over-the-horizon' or 'around-the-corner' on their way to work.
There are many potential applications of an open video network when it comes to monitoring, optimising and promoting economic activity. Retailers would be able to judge the suitability of different premises by comparing the flow of people and traffic between areas; shop fronts could be redesigned to attract customers through the video network; customers could ascertain which shops are open, have changed their window displays or are too busy; house buyers could find out the truth about a particular property before going to visit for themselves - is it really in a quiet backwater or by the side of a busy dual carriageway?
I believe that it's certain that a market for professional viewers would emerge. People would be paid by agencies or individuals to keep watch or to carry out detailed studies of events in certain areas. This could be an enormous, and as yet virtually untapped pool of employment opportunities, a whole new sector and contributor to the greater economy.
Street-scene footage has already earned its place in the nation's viewing habits. Of course, last week saw the very apotheosis of unscheduled street television, in its full horror. All eyes were on lower Manhattan. There are implications for news reporting - many stories have been missed because no TV news crews were on the ground at the time of the event. Under the new system, viewers would become their own cameramen, tuning into a location rather than a news station, in the first instance at least.
Moving away from news, it's likely that new opportunities to entertain will make their way to our screens under a total video network. What automatically comes to minds is a new type of live performance - entertainers might gather spontaneously in well-known, central locations for the pleasure of whoever feels like tuning in to watch. Public taste is wide and varied - the video network equivalent of trainspotters might get their kicks by watching activity on the North Circular road. As mentioned above, perhaps they too could be rewarded for keeping watch on their patch. A hobby born from a very high boredom threshold could become a living for some people.
National & Local Security
This is the sine qua non of current closed video networks and the aspect which most concerns civil liberty campaigners. There is justified anxiety about the lack of accountability and regulations governing those who work in surveillance centres. There's nothing to stop lecherous spy camera operators following attractive females, perhaps even cross-referencing their image with personal details. The centralised nature of this apparatus of security is also a serious worry - who indeed watches these watchmen?
Perhaps some of these problems could be tackled by placing the responsibility for local security in the hands of the people who have to live there. Picture-in-picture and motion detection technologies are already well established - might not the two be combined to allow homeowners and tenants to look after their own streets and buildings? Might this possibility also deter potential burglars and muggers, if they know that the response to their trespassing or attacks will be immediate? At the moment, there is a chain of response that runs from isolated cameras, to centralised control rooms and then to police headquarters and on to officers in the area who are ordered to respond. The criminals know and depend on this inherent delay in current CCTV systems.
Many other applications and benefits of having total video coverage of an urban area come to mind. Defence against bombers is a pressing need in London. The city has been the target of dozens of attacks over the last two or three decades. It would be much easier to trace and track bombers with such a system, and efforts to do so would surely benefit from the combined efforts of the security services and the many private citizens who might contribute their own observations - this would be something like massively parallel criminal investigation, cooperative sleuthing. Police brutality would also be harder to get away with if it was known that dozens of independent witnesses might be watching. At present, it's all too easy for vital footage to go missing from the archives.
Building a network of full-colour, high-definition, and highly reliable yet easy to maintain cameras would be a serious undertaking. Linking them to a publicly accessible gateway and formulating an effective addressing system that allowed the average user to find what he or she wanted would also be a non-trivial technical problem. However, most of the necessary elements are already available - no radically new technology is necessary: what's needed is the political will, a legal framework and investment capital.
How many cameras would it take to cover London?
It's estimated that the daytime population of Greater London is around 10 million, occupying an area of 2000 square kilometres. To get to a rough estimate of the number of cameras required for satisfactory coverage, let's assume that each camera has a working range that takes in a circle with a radius of 100 metres. There would be approximately 25 such contiguous circles in each square kilometre. Therefore, to cover 2000 square kilometres, at least 50,000 separate cameras would be required, or one for every 200 people.
This figure, happens to be somewhat less than the number of streetlights in Greater London, so installing 50,000 cameras is not unfeasible. In fact, many of these cameras would be best placed atop existing streetlights. Many thousands of cameras are already in place - the total number is thought to be 150,000 in London alone, but few of these would be suitable for the task. There are estimated to be approximately 2.5 million scattered across the UK. Broadband networks and the Internet already form much of the necessary information infrastructure. A lot of broadband cables lay dormant, useless dark fibre, with owners desperate to find some return on investment. The only part of the plan that is difficult to quantify is what the overall effect of letting an urban area see itself in this new and clear light will be. The thrust of my argument is this: if spy camera networks do continue to expand and their images remain inaccessible, there is a real risk that bad things will happen and freedom will be seriously curtailed. If their images are made available to everyone, the risk of these same bad things happening is minimised. We're at a fork in the road.
Suppose we choose the right road. In the longer term, the system will take on some interesting new properties as it matures and establishes itself. New companies will spring up with additional services that squeeze the most out of the network. There would be packages that allow the user to move seamlessly from camera's point of view to those adjacent, as if one were travelling through the streets oneself. This should give a sense of geographical space and photorealistic detail that all other media lack. Another product might make it possible to track events in some areas and still another to follow your child on his or her way to or from school. Ground-level footage could be integrated with 3D satellite imagery (or interferometry ) in new and helpful ways - for surveying purposes or for settling legal disputes over boundaries and access to natural light.
Rogue applications may hit the market, some of which will perform face-recognition or generate deceptive imagery. With this in mind, there should perhaps be an option,in special cases, to go ex-directory by having one's property and person digitally blocked from the network.
Like the telephone network, public radio, water, gas, sewerage and electricity, the open video network will quickly come to be regarded as just another utility - useful, ubiquitous but not without its costs and dangers.
In summary, as a society we should seek to bring together all present and future CCTV systems and spy cameras into one integrated system. This system should be supported by a solid legal framework. It should be easy to use with a robust and user-friendly interface.
This unified system, the first new utility of the 21st century, should be built and paid for in the same way as any other public service. This new layer of civil integration would bring with it social, economic, commercial, entrepreneurial and security benefits, each of which has been hinted at above.
Furthermore, it will bring these benefits by using existing technologies and infrastructure in a new way. No massive building programme or fundamental reordering of the urban landscape is required.
Each citizen will have as much raw visual information available to them as anybody else in society, including the government and military - spy cameras will, in this way, liberate us at the moment they threatened to take away our liberty.