Public webcams, not CCTV, urged to avoid Big Brother society

Ian Sample

Footage from surveillance cameras must be made freely available to the public if Britain is to avoid becoming a Big Brother state, researchers warned yesterday.Under the proposals, networks of CCTV cameras would be turned into public webcams, allowing those under surveillance to see where cameras are directed, what images are recorded and who is viewing the footage.

The recommendations, in a report called Dilemmas of Privacy and Surveillance, published by the Royal Academy of Engineering, come as the Home Office and police forces prepare to upgrade national CCTV networks amid concern that evidence from the cameras is often too poor in quality to use in criminal investigations.

The review was ordered after the bombings in London on July 7 2005, when police found that images recorded by many cameras were not good enough to help investigations.

The creation of “community webcams” would redress the imbalance of power between those in front and those behind the cameras by making organisations and individuals who use the information as accountable as those being filmed, the researchers claim.

“We are the most watched-over society in the world, and if we are being watched, then we need to be able to watch the watchers,” said Ian Forbes, a consultant and co-author of the report.

Britain has an estimated 5m surveillance cameras operated by councils and private companies – roughly one for every 12 people – but footage from them is unavailable to the public. The rise in surveillance systems has alarmed some MPs, and prompted the Commons home affairs select committee to launch an inquiry into so-called Big Brother Britain this week.

The report says: “The greatest value of this sort of “community webcam” would be its power to prevent a Big Brother state … Community members could object if they felt particular cameras were unnecessary or unnecessarily intrusive. This would limit the potential for voyeuristic or prejudicial misuse of surveillance.”

The report also raises fears over the security of personal details held by supermarkets, credit card companies and health authorities. Leaked health records, it says, could jeopardise people’s employment prospects, or even put them at risk of attack.