CCTV risks making life less safe

It’s not only about civil liberties. The cameras produce fallible images, encourage detachment, and corrode civic values

Libby Brooks
The Guardian

The bustling high street in the Hampshire village of Stockbridge is less than a mile from end to end. Pretty red brick cottages consumed by blushing ivy face a parade of long-established local businesses: a butcher, a grocer, a ladies’ dress shop, as well as a number of newer enterprises, including two art galleries, which have sprung up to cater for the tourists tempted by the trout fishing in the nearby river Test. But this is the village that, earlier this year, prompted Hampshire’s deputy chief constable, Ian Readhead, to assert that Britain was becoming a country he no longer wanted to live in.

There is a prominent road sign midway down the high street, alerting motorists to the possibility of wandering mallards from the duck pond. Less obvious are the three CCTV cameras which so offended Readhead. In an interview in May, he highlighted Stockbridge in a broadside against Britain’s surveillance society, bemoaning the spread of cameras to quiet rural villages with low crime rates, such as this one.

But for the traders of Stockbridge, who matched police funds to pay for the system, their minimalist surveillance is more than welcome. Although nobody can point me to an instance where footage has been used to apprehend a criminal, all attest to an increased sense of security. And they firmly believe in the deterrence effect. As one shop owner told me: “It doesn’t make me self-conscious. If you’re doing something that you don’t want to be seen on camera, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.”

An alarming new report, the first official joint government and police assessment of our national CCTV strategy, has drifted into the public domain largely unnoticed. It finds that more than 80% of cameras produce images of such poor quality that they are of no use for detection purposes, and that the majority were positioned in the wrong places. The report also highlighted that there are no statutory safeguards on CCTV and that, because anyone is able to set up a network, the authorities have no accurate figure on how many are in operation.

Perhaps the most significant thing about this report is that it exists at all. In a country with at least 4.2m cameras, one for every 14 people, estimated to comprise 20% of the world’s allocation, where the Home Office spent 78% of its crime prevention budget on installing these systems in the 1990s, and has invested £500m of public money in CCTV over the last decade, the lack of authoritative research into the efficacy of surveillance is troubling.

If CCTV was an expensive medical treatment, the government would have demanded compelling evidence before farming it out to private companies, which rake in serious cash from its manufacture. But instead MPs clamour for more, egged on by their constituents, because CCTV has been almost unresistingly accepted as an elixir for the low-level criminality and public disorder that most concerns the public, despite the fact that the limited research available does not bear this out. Deterrence is notoriously hard to evaluate, but the most comprehensive study, carried out in 2005, found little overall impact on crime levels. A four-year study in Cardiff found no reduction in street violence, although injuries were less severe because police and ambulances were alerted more swiftly.

Most experts agree that the only time cameras earn their keep is in clean-ups after a crime. Here I should declare an interest. When I was assaulted on a train several years ago, it was CCTV that identified my attacker and secured his conviction. But still hit rates don’t correlate with ubiquity. As the new Home Office report shows, I had only a two in 10 chance of a successful ID.

Yet the information commissioner’s office has found in its research “a general unquestioning assumption [among the public] that CCTV works”. The myth of the silver bullet, justifying a massive infringement for dubious payback, has taken hold. Our lack of privacy has become utterly mundane. The average Londoner is caught on camera 300 times a day. Mark you, today someone is eating their sandwiches while they view you going about your honest business.

The Stockbridge shopkeeper would say that shouldn’t matter. But it does matter because, even beyond the compelling civil liberties arguments, the explosion of CCTV fundamentally alters a population’s relationship with its public spaces. Those who are most aware of being watched respond in ways that only render them more vulnerable to sanction: teenagers hoist up their hoodies, demonstrators cover their faces on marches. Much more insidious is the way that our misplaced confidence in an omnipresent witnessing eye apparently makes us feel absolved of any responsibility to intervene ourselves.

Britain has become a witness culture, inured to watching and being watched. Be it Big Brother or posting friends’ antics on YouTube, our leisure time has become increasingly infected with the imperative to expose ourselves and others. No activity, no individual, is deemed valid without an audience.

So maybe acquiescence to a constant mechanical witness should not come as such a surprise. But it bears repeating that that winking eye in the corner is singularly failing to keep us safe. And it has corrupted our sense of public and private to the extent that, every evening, we can go home to help ourselves to a piece of a stranger’s life while, on the street, we feel no compunction to help at all.