Surveillance society: CCTVs in the U.K.

Published 9 July 2007

The United Kingdom has 1 percent of the world’s population, it occupies 0.2 percent of the world’s inhabitable land mass, but it accounts for more than 20 percent of the world’s CCTV cameras

The United Kingdom has the most per-capita CCTVs in the world. Throughout the country there are an estimated five million CCTV cameras, meaning that there is one CCTV camera for every twelve citizens. The United Kingdom has about 1 percent of the world’s population and occupies a mere 0.2 percent of the world’s inhabitable land mass, but it accoutns for more than 20 percent of the world’s CCTV cameras. The Washington Post called the United Kingdom “the world’s premier surveillance society,” and in 2006 Andrea Arnold’s film “Red Road” won the Prix du Jury at tCannes Film Festival. The movie tells the story of a CCTV operator coming face to face with the killer of her father.

A typical Londoner going about his or her business may be monitored by 300 CCTV cameras a day. More than 2,000 cameras watch over London’s railway stations and another 6,000 permanently peer at commuters on the Underground and London buses. In other major city centres, including Manchester and Edinburgh, residents can expect to be sighted on between roughly 50 and 100 cameras a day. The British government last year has launched an ambitious project of installing CCTVs along all major highways in the country. The project has already paid dividends: Using images from these road-side CCTVs, the British police were able to track the car driven by one of the Glasgow bombing plotters, Mohammed Asha, and pulled the car over in a dramatic operation on the M6 highway in northwest England.

The New Statesman’s Brendan O’Neill writes that the numbers above refer to official cameras, that is, cameras operated by local governments and police services. During the past two years, however, an ever-growing number of private companies, businesses, banks, building societies, schools, community halls, leisure centres, and private residences have installed CCTVs.

The cameras now being installed are becoming smarter. Some cameras now come with automatic number-plate recognition, facial recognition, and even suspicious behaviour recognition. The first videoanalytic “smart” software was introduced in 2003, and ever-more-sophisticated algorithms now make videoanalytics a powerful antiterrorism tool. As we reported …. British scientists, backed by a £500,000 grant from the Ministry of Defense, are now working on developing cameras with gait recognition. These cameras will recognize whether people are walking suspiciously or strangely, and alert a human operator. Another example: Last October, Middlesbrough became the first town to install speaking CCTV cameras. The purpose of the speaking cameras is to lessen the burden on security personnel: If the camera notices an individual who left her backpack on a bench, a man standing on a rail platform for too long as trains come and go, or a group of youngsters behaving in an antisocial manner, it barks orders at them and assesses their responses. If they do not respond appropriately, security personnel is alerted.

Michael: Text below should be in a blue box

CCTV in Britain spread rapidly during the 1990s, but had been around since the 1950s. In 1956 the police started to use cameras in one-man operations at traffic lights in order to catch drivers running red lights. In 1960 the Metropolitan Police temporarily placed two cameras in Trafalgar Square to monitor the crowds during a public appearance by the Queen. By 1969, 14 police forces around the country were using CCTV, but there were still only 67 cameras in total. During the 1970s and 1980s the retail sector started to become interested but, even as late as 1991, still only ten cities had open-street CCTV systems, and they were small-scale and locally funded. All agree that the turning point was the abduction and murder of James Bulger in 1993.

The now famous grainy CCTV image of the two ten-year-olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables leading the trusting toddler by the hand from a Liverpool shopping centre was broadcast around the nation, and subsequently the world. Video-grabs were featured on the front page of every British paper. The then-home secretary, Michael Howard, announced a City Challenge Competition to allocate £2 million of government money for open-street CCTV systems. The Home Office was overwhelmed by 480 applications.

The explosive growth of CCTVs since 1993 has transformed city centers and local communities. In Shoreditch, London, there is even a “socially inclusive” CCTV initiative, known as Digital Bridge, which allows the residents themselves to tune in to “community TV” and watch what is happening outside their front doors.