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Police shield

Some of the most vigorous opposition to ‘CCTV Britain’ is to be found on the right – especially among libertarians. However, it was a rightwing Home Secretary who did more than anyone else to expand the CCTV network. BBC News Magazine takes up the story:

“In 1994, the Conservative government launched the Partners Against Crime initiative, with Home Secretary Michael Howard saying he was ‘absolutely convinced that CCTV has a major part to play in helping detect, and reduce crimes and to convict criminals’.

“The next year the CCTV Challenge Competition fund was started to encourage local authorities to set up surveillance schemes – the Home Office and local authorities invested £120m in CCTV systems within three years.”

Twenty years later, the tide could be turning:

“Cornwall was one of the first local authorities to cut their CCTV budget back in April 2011 – by £350,000. Denbighshire council will stop their funding and make a saving of £200,000 from 2016-17. Anglesey Council scrapped its CCTV altogether last year but following a successful charitable trust bid it will now be run by the island’s five town councils. In Derby, 48 cameras in the city centre may be switched off.

“Other areas are scaling back. Birmingham’s 250 CCTV cameras will no longer be monitored around the clock and CCTV managers across the country face redundancy.

“Police are under similar financial strain. Thames Valley Police could reduce its CCTV funding for the city from £225,000 annually, to as little as £50,000 by 2018.”

With budgets under pressure, it’s politically easier to take CCTV cameras off our streets than police officers. But could this be a false economy?

The evidence on the effectiveness of CCTV is mixed. It apparently makes “a small, but statistically significant” difference to some crimes, but not to others:

“British psychologist Gordon Trasler has pointed out that a reason for this might be that CCTV is effective for ‘instrumental’ offences (such as property crime or robbery) but not so effective for ‘expressive’ offences like violent crime when behaviour is impulsive and there is no time for rational decision-making.”

On the other hand “in 2009, 95 per cent of Scotland Yard murder cases used CCTV footage as evidence.”

If austerity does see off the surveillance state, don’t assume that’s the end of CCTV:

“Pauline Norstrom, chair of the [British Security Industry Association], says that budgetary pressure on the public sector and cuts to CCTV does not mean a wider decline in the UK. ‘While public sector budgets have put pressure on its cameras, private sector cameras now outnumber them by a scale of 70 to one,’ she said. ‘These are the key in deterring criminal activity and securing convictions.’”

According to Heather Timmons in Quartz, private surveillance is about to take off – quite literally:

“2015 will be the year of the super-cheap camera-equipped drone, capable of traveling up to several hundred meters and priced so low that consumers could potentially buy them for $100 or less.

“While drones in general were a hot holiday gift in 2014, this year’s newest models fly farther and easier, take clearer photos, and cost much, much less.”

Whatever you think about the municipal use of CCTV, the council is unlikely to fly a camera outside your bedroom window. Your neighbours, however, might not be so restrained.

As consumer surveillance technologies become ever more sophisticated and affordable, we may be facing a new threat to privacy. Or maybe not so new. In some respects, we’re reverting back to the good old days when everyone kept an eye on everyone else’s business. Only, this time, it’s with flying robots.

2 comments for: The surveillance state is dying, long live the surveillance society

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