Success in the Surveillance Society

Article excerpt

Malcolm Smith and David Lee, strangers until earlier that afternoon, descended into an underground walkway one evening in May 1993, shortly after leaving an English pub. Once out of public view, Lee grabbed Smith and threw him to the ground. Raining blows with his fists and feet, Lee knocked Smith unconscious, then began frantically searching for his wallet.

Unbeknownst to Lee, the scene was being recorded by the powerful eye of a surveillance camera. Police responded quickly, racing to the scene and tackling Lee before he could escape with Smith's money. It took just two-and-a-half minutes from the start of the offense to the time of the arrest. Lee was convicted of assault and sent to prison for three months. Smith, who recovered from his injuries, had reason to be thankful that he lives in what has been called the Surveillance Society.

An estimated 120 towns and cities throughout Britain are now using CCTV technology for public area surveillance. Once seen as the first step toward an Orwellian future, the public now welcomes CCTV as a weapon in the fight against crime.

Surveillance cameras - first introduced in shopping centers and parking lots in 1975 and expanded to city streets more than a decade later - have played a significant role in reducing assaults, robberies, vandalism, and other problems that sometimes trouble England's urban times trouble England's urban areas. In addition, because the presence of CCTV makes people feel safer, they are more willing to visit city centers to shop, eat, and be entertained. It is difficult for anyone in England to walk the streets without being taped by the electronic eye. A generation has grown up accepting the role of closed-circuit television. We do not fear an Orwellian future. Big Brother has arrived and we love him.

CCTV's evolution. The public in Britain did not always accept CCTV cameras in public areas. In the 1960s and 1970s, surveillance cameras were viewed suspiciously as a possible infringement on civil rights. But several trends occurred in England over the next few years that would begin to change the public's mind.

Beginning in the 1960s, sports fans started to fall victim to the so-called "football hooligans," those who used soccer games as their venue to vandalize and commit violent crime. Several tragedies at football stadiums culminated on April 15, 1989, when ninety-two people were crushed to death at Hillsborough Football Stadium in Sheffield, when about 100 late-arriving fans rushed into the arena. The incident led to a national inquiry, which recommended that surveillance technology be placed in all football grounds.

In addition, Britain suffered urban disorder in many of its inner cities throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The race riots in London and Liverpool in 1984, the national coal miner strikes of 1984-85, and the riots over the government's poll tax in 1989 all contributed to public frustration with crime. In each of these cases, as with the football hooligans, police and prosecutors had trouble catching or appropriately punishing criminals.

Moreover, what America has not experienced until recently - but what Britain has been exposed to for the past quarter-century - is domestic terrorism. In Britain, the IRA sought to force political change by attacking civilian targets. This more than anything else may have contributed to the public's acceptance of public area surveillance.

The first systems were introduced in the mid 1970s by shopping center owners who saw a need to protect their retail establishments and parking lots. These CCTV cameras were installed covertly for fear that the public would disapprove.

Cities and towns began looking at CCTV seriously in the late 1980s. Among other reasons, city officials believed that cameras were needed to quell public fears of crime that were driving residents out of the city. For example, a study conducted between December 1989 and July 1990 by accountants in Nottingham found that the city's retail and leisure industry was losing an estimated $60 million a year and an estimated 352 jobs overall because of a phenomena known as "city center avoidance," or shoppers' reluctance to visit downtown shopping areas. …