CCTV – What of Liberty

The UK has approximately 1 per cent of the world population and well over 10 per cent of the world’s CCTV cameras. London alone has around 422,000 CCTV cameras, and it is estimated that on an average day an individual, in London, will be captured on a camera at least 30 times. Third in line with the most CCTV cameras is Chicago, with at least 17,000. However, according to a recent report in the Chinese state media, People’s Daily, the city of Beijing now has a CCTV network that covers ‘every corner’ of the city. The total number of cameras is around 470,000. Without any obvious trace of irony, the system’s official name is ‘Sky Net’.

In George Orwell’s novel, 1984 one of the things that the protagonist Winston Smith hated was the surveillance by cameras and how the Thought Police could remotely talk to you. Someone mentioned to me that as he was coming out of Reading Station, about a year ago, someone dropped an empty packet of crisp on the floor, only to be told via a speaker to pick up the litter he discarded that had been spotted by CCTV.

We now learn that Christmas shoppers have had their faces scanned in central London as part of a police trial. The Metropolitan Police says it invited people to take part in testing the technology rather than scanning people covertly. Privacy campaigner Big Brother Watch has described the use of such technology as “authoritarian, dangerous and lawless”.  In a statement, the group said that “monitoring innocent people in public is a breach of fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of speech and assembly”. Investigations by them also revealed that the system at the moment is not fully functioning as it identified a large number of innocent people as potential suspects.

The Police say the software can identify people wanted by them or the courts. There are the usual arguments made: if you are innocent, you have nothing to worry about. The case made is: progress to using such technology is a logical step especially as it allows large active surveillance when police are increasingly under pressure from cost cuts and in this age of terrorism, such technology will help to keep us safe.

There is a benefit of CCTV in identifying crime. However, research and even the Police have stated that although it has undoubtedly helped it hasn’t brought down crime as much as expected. Some examples as to why this is the case related to poor lighting and clarity of the photos taken.

The question is, increased surveillance does provide greater security but at what cost to Liberty? The increasing use of such technology will lead to total surveillance giving the government the ability to know our whereabouts around the clock. Such knowledge could be used to question or limit legitimate anti-governmental activities / populist reforms. Innocent individuals associated with people being monitored could be unnecessarily investigated.

Having security on private premises is acceptable, however, in public forum it’s, for me, questionable. The Police can always make a case based on security and protection (both things that the public care about). However, the balance to check against a technologically led Police state is that such surveillance should be allowed in authorised locations for a limited period. An individual’s movements must not be scrutinised without authority and cause. Unfortunately, such control will require independent oversight to ensure the freedom of the public is held safe.

* Tahir Maher is the Wednesday editor and a member of the LDV editorial team

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13 Comments

  • Then there is this project to use facial recognition systems to charge fro public transport.

    http://www.theticketingbusiness.com/2017/07/26/facial-recognition-technology-tested-uk-transport-replace-need-tickets/

  • Tahir Maher Tahir Maher 2nd Jan '19 - 12:55pm

    David – the article is about our freedom / Liberty against using technology to protect us and keep us safe. Anything that enhances our security is usually I feel acceptable. Anything that is used to control or profile us, keep records against an individual that could be used against them in a speculative way I fear as it impinges on our civil liberties. Using fingerprints to prove a crime – of course, its ok. Keeping a database of fingerprints of individuals for future use when they are innocent – not acceptable

  • Tahir Maher Tahir Maher 2nd Jan '19 - 5:29pm

    David: “What matters is that proper safeguards are built into the legislation…” I think that is the question that I am trying to answer. I don’t agree with you re poverty not because it isn’t important but because we need to look at all things from a Liberal perspective so poverty is important, but so is to ensure our civil liberties isn’t compromised, as are other things. We live in a multi-faceted society so we must have multi-faceted policies. Priorities become important when we discuss implementation because resources are limited.

  • Jayne Mansfield 2nd Jan '19 - 6:38pm

    @ Tahir Maher,
    I and my friends have been photographed by the police when we were assembled peaceably to demonstrate our opposition to the EDL marching through our town. ( we are a rather photogenic group). I am relaxed about it. They probably have data from my anti-apartheid days. What they will have identified will be a group of blameless women who have made a sizeable voluntary contribution to our town whilst we have lived here.

    Although we were ‘kettled’ behind a barrier so that the march could take place, our fear was having louts in our town. The pent up violence was palpable. Fortunately there are plenty of CCTV cameras, and I have no concern at the number. A fundamental liberty is to be able to go about one’s business without fear.

    If crime has not fallen as much as hoped after the introduction of CCTV cameras, the answer is to improve the lighting and technology.

    I believe that the best way of preventing crime is to make the potential criminal fear being caught and appropriately sentenced.

  • Tahir Maher Tahir Maher 2nd Jan '19 - 9:07pm

    David: I suppose my argument is more based on Value-pluralism (the idea that there are several values which may be equally correct and fundamental). We may be more secure but at what cost – we need both but not necessarily at the expense of each other – what we need is a balance.

  • Genies I am told don’t go back into bottles, I was taught. CCTV cameras are everywhere. There is a demand for them by worried members of the public. Many people have them looking out from their houses to the street. In fact according to a current advert on the TV, you can get ones which can be activated when your doorbell is activated. And of course when anything unusual happens the mobile phones are out recording it.
    The question to me is how this is controlled.
    The problem is the possible abuses of this. People can be tracked for no legal reason, and be subjected to harassment. What regulations should be in place to avoid this?
    When we all live in the New Singapore which the government are aiming for, then the tools are there to ensure we all behave ourselves, act like good consumers and keep our thoughts to ourselves.

  • Robin Bennett 3rd Jan '19 - 6:09pm

    People who have experienced repressive regimes such as Russia or China will naturally fear CCTV. But for those of us who have lived all our lives in a country in which fair police and access to justice have been taken for granted, CCTV principally represents the greatest cause of crime reduction in recent years (despite claims by politicians and the police that they deserve the credit). It has also done wonders in cutting road traffic offences.

    One might reasonably fear abuse of the CCTV system by the authorities or politicians or, for example, corrupt policemen in league with the gutter press. That’s where eternal vigilance comes in.

  • Peter Hirst 4th Jan '19 - 2:42pm

    I don’t mind being watched on camera; it’s what is done with the information. There needs to be a decent level of suspicion more than association for it to lead to any action. There is also the temptation to use it for reasons for which it was unintended. Plenty of legal oversight and sanctions for inappropriate use seem in order. As the technology improves the threats to civil liberties increase.

  • Nonconformistradical 5th Jan '19 - 11:22am

    Peter Hirst is right – this is primarily about what is done with the information.

    For what purposes might CCTV images be retained and for how long?

    If AI tools are to be used to (try to) match CCTV images against a database of known miscreants then what is the risk of false positives (and the time wasted in following them up)?

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