Well I am going to break a bit with Slashdot tradition here but I think as a Brit living in London who values both security and liberty (liberty much more than security), I probably have some opinions and perspectives here that might contribute to the debate on the use of CCTV in our country (even if it is to stir up a hornet's nest of antipathetic disagreement!)
I am often a little bit bemused by the reaction of some of our Atlantic cousins to the CCTV we have over here. I often think, given some of the reaction and comments made on that side of the pond that they must think that every single one of us has cameras pointing into our bedrooms 24 hours a day like some kind of city-wide Big Brother TV show. Sometimes I think that is the only thing that could explain such strong reactions. I have read enough articles by freedom-loving American commentators deploring the insufferable intrusions we experience on a daily basis into our private and personal lives and I just can't relate to it. Let me assure you that the experience for most of us here is far from the picture that is often painted. I will try to explain why, and why I think this reaction is, while well-meaning, unnecessary. I am sure many people will disagree with my assessment (particular given the political leanings of most Slashdot readers), some of them British as well and I am glad to hear of other people's perspectives. I am just writing here of my current thoughts and feelings on this matter and I, of course, reserve the right to change my opinion if someone convinces me that I have it all wrong
My experience relates mostly to the CCTV in London which is supposedly the worst offender of civil liberties in most people's eyes, particularly as far as CCTV is concerned. To understand why I disagree with the controversy surrounding CCTV in London (most of it anyway) and why most Londoners are just not really bothered by CCTV you have to first have some understanding London's infrastructure and architecture (and, indeed, many other cities in the UK). I am not completely sure how different they are from American cities and towns (I've never been to the US) but I suspect, from some of the movies and documentaries I have seen of American cities, there are some differencesâ"at least when comparing the major cities.
For starters, where I live--which resembles areas most average Londoners live in--one could walk around for miles and never see a CCTV camera anywhere; in my area, which is edging on suburbia, this could be in any direction, with perhaps the exception of one. If I walk in one particular direction for about a third of a mile I will eventually come across what we call the "high street" that serves my local areaâ"basically a street that contains most, if not all, of the shops, banks and business that serve the local area. This is quite typical of most London regions -- a couple of miles in any direction and you pass through only residential areas. Each residential area has one (or maybe two) of these streets. Usually they are less than half a mile long and have few or no residential dwellings in them apart from single- or double-floored residential apartments above some shops (many of these are just owned and used by the shops below for whatever purposes they see fit). There are usually CCTV cameras pointing up and down the high streets where no one really lives but none at all in the residential areas. These cameras are placed here primarily because the chavs, youths, drunks tend to congregate in the high streets (if the area has such people). In many places these cameras have resulted in a reduction in crime and antisocial behaviour (yeah I suppose they have just gone elsewhere but there is a reason why they congregated in these places in the first place so if it makes it harder for these people to get up to mischief it's a bonus in my book; and the high street is where most decent people like to go too so there's good reason for getting antisocial crime away from that area). Most law-abiding people know the cameras are there and are much happier for it â" feeling a lot safer walking down the street but feeling none of their liberties are being interfered with. Most people here feel their liberties are increased--the liberty to walk down the street at night without being knifed, robbed, spat on or generally abused by yobs, for instance. The notion of civil liberties being eroded or privacy being invaded just doesn't fit the reality of the situation in most people's eyes (I elaborate some of the reasons why below).
The cameras in high streets are also welcomed by the shop owners who like the idea of someone watching over their shops (or at least possibly looking in their general direction) while they not there (the reality might be different but it makes them feel better at least anyway).
Now one exception to this is the area in London known, incongruously, as the "City of London" which is a rather small area right in the centre of London. This is the area most Americans and other tourists probably visit when they come to London only because there is not much to do elsewhere and most of London is pretty boring for tourists besides this one small area. You will find quite a lot of CCTV in most streets around this area because it mostly contains just offices of the biggest companies, the most expensive shops, the major entertainment venues and all the major tourist attractions--but nobody really lives in these areas (apart from a few very, very rich people who are probably very glad for anything that wards off the hoi-polloi from their expensive properties). The reputation for CCTV has probably come from these kinds of city centre areas only but as nobody really lives there no-one really feels that the cameras are invading their privacy; we may shop there, or work there, or get drunk there but, as anyone who has ever walked down Oxford Street knows, millions of people walking down the same narrow street at exactly the same time isn't really a great source of juicy information for nosey governments trying to dig up dirt on its citizens. People aren't bothered because, even the government were doing that, we know the other 999,999 people probably have far more interesting things going on in their private lives than we do (the truth is very few of the millions of people passing through central London each day have anything of interest to Big Government Baddies so using CCTV this way to spy on the populace generally would be very silly and expensive waste of time.
Other residential places where you might see CCTV are where richer, more well-to-do folk live who worry about being burgled; but these, being privately owned, often gated-communities, the CCTV will have been brought in by the residents themselves through "Residents' Associations" whose policies are voted on by the residents. If they wanted to they could vote the CCTV out again any time.
The CCTV in most of these communities are installed and monitored by private security firms who have no connection to government or police. Actually, I believe this is true of most CCTV in London apart from in the very central areas--CCTV is contracted out to private firms by local government and most local governments could not organise a knees-up in a brewery let alone spy on its citizens). The only time the police get to see anything on privately owned/monitored CCTV is 1) when the security agents think they spot a crime being committed and pick up a phone to call the police, and 2) when a crime is observed and reported by a citizen and the police ask a certain portion of footage be given to them over if they think it was caught on CCTV. If they don't think a crime was caught on camera the police don't look at it and they don't have time to look through anything but the relatively small portions they think might have caught a criminal in action. Not quite the "police state" it is often made out to be. The police just don't have anywhere near the time, money, or manpower needed to be watching every single piece of CCTV footage; they barely have the time and resources to be looking out for actual, real, known criminals let alone potential yet-to-be ones. In fact, they are only interested in viewing footage after a crime has taken place--so the idea that we are now living in a police state were every action is observed and noted is ridiculous. Most CCTV footage just goes unobserved and unnoticed, eventually just deleted.
Another exception is high crime residential areas, areas we call "council estates"
designed and built while everyone was high on drugs in the 1960s these concrete monstrosities are responsible for producing any number of psychological ailments. If you have ever been to one of them or, worse, lived in one, you would realise the cameras stop everyone from killing each other. Furthermore, as you drag your multiple-stabbed, face-bottled, blood-soaked, wounded carcass around the concrete structures, people walking past you pretending not to notice you or, perhaps more likely, actually not
noticing you because the most council estates have no working lighting and were designed to resemble laboratory rat mazes that you have no idea how to find your way around, nor do the paramedics their way in (never mind getting the ambulance in because in most of these places the roads stop a few hundreds yards away from where you are lying bleeding to death). If you lived here you would probably be glad of the possibility that there might be some bloke sitting at the other end of a CCTV camera willing to call someone and direct them to your dying body.
OK, so I got carried away in that part painting a nice little mental picture for you but yes, I lived on one of these council estates as a young child and, quite far from being the worse one, I and my family where physically threatened almost daily by other kids and adults living on the same estate. Our neighbours for, instance, already had one member of their family in prison for murder and I am quite sure his siblings were well capable of slotting a few holes in me also. We didn't have CCTV back then but I am sure the residents there now know the score and feel better knowing that some CCTV does prevent some antisocial behaviour taking place.
So, apart from major spots in central London, most CCTV is either owned, contracted to and run by private firms and, if watched at all, by poorly paid, bored citizenâ"ordinary workers like you and me, not some nefarious Orwellian-style government. The vast amount CCTV footage could never be stored for more than a few weeks and most is just deleted having never been watched by human eyes. Collecting all of this data from multiple, disparate sources where it could possibly be used and abused to restrict our civil liberties is some way is really only an autocrats pipe dream at the moment. I'm not saying it won't ever or can't ever happen, I'm just saying it's not likely happening right now. In the future, though, we need to keep our eyes open.
Some conspiratorial types (of which I am, of a sort, one of) could argue that it is possible for police or Secret Services to have gained access to all of the cameras in the UK and can monitor and track anyone they want to and at any time. Well, I can't deny the possibility that might happen in future or that the technology is possible now but, frankly, I think it would be a massive waste of limited resources and I don't think it would catch on. I also think, if it gets that bad, most of us just simply won't put up with it.
Please understand, American friends, that us Brits are fiercely passionate about our civil liberties and, perhaps, even more about our privacy (as much if not more than most Americans). If anything ever became a real threat to our liberties we would be on it in a heartbeat. We don't like people spying on us. The thing that mostly bothers us about CCTV is the question of whether the money spent on it could have been better spent elsewhere. It would seem from the article, it could. We are not really bothered if some poorly-paid, bored private security officer spots us popping into Marks & Spencers for some underwear but if a government agency ever tried to install cameras in our residential streets there would be hell to pay!
We may still have a pointless monarchy and have in the past had to suffer a prime minister who would rather be George Bush's pet poodle than proud leader of a great, free independent nation, but we really do value our privacy and liberty. I think many Americans don't realise that and think we are a brow-beaten, easily dominated people just because we still have Royalty (I admit it's an anachronism that probably has had it's day but our royalty is really little more than a tourist attraction and a private, national joke). "An Englishman's home is his castle!" as they say. Not a truer word has been spoken. We are big and ugly and mean enough to look after ourselves and we will if ever the time comes when it is necessary.
So, American friends, please don't worry about us--if our liberties are genuinely threatened we will take care of it.
Like we eventually got rid of that poodle!
Hopefully, this will give some kind of insight into why we Brits mostly unconcerned by CCTV and don't see it now as the great Orwellian threat some seem to think it isâ"because it simply isn't--at least not in its current form. But that could change, of course, at any time and we always need to be wary.