The UK of CCTV: A new look at the monitored isle


Gustav Jönsson | 15 November 2018


As Britain’s CCTV network, the densest in the Western world, only becomes denser, a fresh assessment of its limited efficacy might be in order.

Some months ago, there was a television report from China on how the Communist Party was attempting to cover whole cities with facial recognition cameras. This ambition is already being achieved; by 2020 there will be an estimated 300 million cameras, many of them AI-powered. The reporter was interviewing a representative of one of the companies behind this technology. Asked if total surveillance did not have certain Orwellian overtones – if it was not “Big Brother is watching you” – the man answered that it was not a question of watching people but rather of monitoring them. The contradiction and the irony seemed lost on him.


How fitting it was that said representative was an Englishman. For in the Western world, when it comes to surveillance, the UK is ground zero. Here the cameras are everywhere and unavoidable. One cannot know who is watching, recording, or what is done with the tapes. Transparency is non-existent. There are a reported 6 million surveillance cameras in the UK – one for every eleven people. The most astonishing thing is that this excess is hardly noticed, much less protested.


Take the University of Glasgow (where I am a student) as an example. On one floor of the university library there are ten surveillance cameras. Another has, by my count, eight cameras, and its lowest floor, which is a sort of basement, has five. Outside the library there is surveillance covering the main entrance and most corners of the building. There are also numerous cameras on lecture theatres, the student unions, the Wolfson medical school building and several other locations. Additionally, students and staff approaching the university main building from the South Gate are filmed, as is anyone entering the Reading Room or coming through the Main Gate. Surveillance is nearly inescapable on campus; but students register no outrage or discontent, merely acceptance.  


The most frequent justification given for mass surveillance is security. (Notice how surveillance cameras are often euphemistically called security cameras). Images are recorded for “crime prevention” and “public safety”, it is claimed. This, however, is a specious argument. There are, of course, some rare cases when surveillance does prevent crime, but most of the time it has no deterrent value. In general, cameras only cause criminality to migrate three feet out of frame. (Might this be the reason the university is attempting to keep the entire campus area in frame?) The types of misbehaviour that cameras disincentivise are burglary and car theft – i.e. property crime – but the crime reduction is not significant. The “public safety” interest is also illusory: there is no good evidence that cameras reduce rates of violent crime. And spending money on surveillance too often comes at the cost of neglecting more effective forms of crime prevention, such as street lighting, that are both cheaper and do not infringe on privacy.


CCTV cameras covers the University of Glasgow, but other universities are far worse. Both Newcastle and Essex are equipping their security staff with body cameras and microphones. None of this is reasonable or proportional. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there are some limited benefits of CCTV on rough streets. Can the same be said for a university campus? Plainly not. The safety of campus voids the argument for surveillance. Look at it this way: what security have we gained from selling our privacy? What crimes have been deterred using campus cameras. How many robberies have cameras in university reading rooms warded off? When was the last time a camera caught a mugging in a library cafeteria?


The common assumption behind surveillance cameras is that even if they do not make anyone safer, they will at least make people feel safer. That the authorities take recourse to this argument is understandable given the scanty evidence that CCTV provides safety. But, interestingly, there is no basis for believing that surveillance gives reassurance of security. On the contrary, the facts suggest that people, upon seeing a camera, feel more unsafe than they otherwise would. This makes perfect intuitive sense. After all, if there is a security camera, there must reasonably be some threat to security that warrants its use. Why, one might wonder, is there a need for such close observation? Is there perhaps some threat that necessitates it? No wonder CCTV makes people feel anxious.


CCTV cameras are an insult to the people who are being filmed. They are tantamount to a statement that we are not capable of decent behaviour unless someone is watching. The test of a person’s moral fibre is how they act when they are in private; eroding privacy thus means removing the moral responsibility of individuals. Surveillance is not just an affront to people’s moral character, but also to their temperaments and rationality. It’s ubiquity is a declaration that people are not reasonable or level-headed enough to be left unmonitored. Furthermore, surveillance hampers people’s spontaneity; the person who knows that they are being watched feels less free than they otherwise would. In pursuing the eradication of anti-social behaviour, society risks lessening all forms of non-standard behaviour. That would be a dull world indeed.


And the responsibility for this legalised mass-snooping goes all the way to the top. It should not surprise anyone that the government would attempt to arrogate to itself powers of surveillance over the population, but perhaps it is more striking that it has been able to get away with it; parliament, the supposed protector of civil liberties, in fact repeatedly infringes those very liberties. It has enacted several intrusive laws that transgress people’s privacy. The courts, meanwhile, are unable to ameliorate the situation. There is no right to privacy enshrined in the so-called “British constitution” that can abrogate the dictates of parliament – after all, sovereignty is uncheckable. And the few court decisions that have ruled government surveillance illegal tend to make use of EU law. Enter Brexit.


Much like the People’s Republic of China, the UK too is installing artificially intelligent facial recognition cameras. So far, the prying technology has been one big and expensive failure. The AI system used by the Metropolitan Police has a reported false/positive rate of 98%. By mid-May of this year the system had not caught a single criminal. Making the tech less inadequate would of course mean making it more intrusive; but personally, I would rather have an inadequate system than one of complete surveillance. And over and above that, no system at all.


The British surveillance apparatus is intolerable, and yet it is widely tolerated. Cultural conditioning can perhaps explain why the public accepts the unacceptable. Being watched, being spied upon, has become part of everyday life. It has become so internalised that people seldom reflect that they are being monitored. Not that politicians have consulted the wishes of their constituents, but it seems as if most people are giving an unvoiced acquiescence to snooping. Some may in fact prefer the imagined stability of surveillance over the spontaneity of life.


I have a strong suspicion that the psychology behind this tacit assent is similar to the mental states that keep the subjects of dictators and strongmen from speaking out. Perhaps it is not too far of a stretch to say that how people in the UK react to surveillance is an indication of how they would act under a tyranny. After all, if you do not object to the surveillance in democratic Britain, why think you would criticise the Communist Party in China – where there are real consequences for speaking out.


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