The State Wants to Know What You're Up to. but Why Do We Let It?

By Hensher, Philip | The Independent (London, England), November 17, 2011 | Go to article overview
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The State Wants to Know What You're Up to. but Why Do We Let It?


Hensher, Philip, The Independent (London, England)


Surveillance

Look up. If you're reading this in a public place in Britain, someone is probably watching you. A camera lens, pointing in your direction, recording you in case you do something out of the ordinary, something suspicious, something interesting, something that isn't in accord with the camera installer's idea of normal respectable behaviour. No one knows how many CCTV cameras have been installed in Britain in recent years. It certainly runs into many millions, and is certainly in excess in numbers-per-head of population of any other society in the world.

The Government came into power suggesting that it was opposed to what, in a conference speech of 2009, David Cameron called the whole rotten edifice of Labour's surveillance state. There is no prospect at all, however, of their seeking to reduce the number of CCTV cameras, and they have, indeed, described them as a valuable tool in combating crime. Certainly their use is continuing to spread, and the detail with which they carry out surveillance of our private existences is on the increase.

In recent days, Oxford City Council has unveiled a plan to make video cameras mandatory in all licensed taxis by 2015. The cameras will not only record images, but, routinely, all conversations between passengers. A council spokesman said that the risk of intrusion into private conversations has to be balanced against the interests of public safety, both of passengers and drivers.

Interesting, isn't it, that use of the word balanced? If you counted the number of serious crimes committed in the back of Oxford taxis during the journey, and then counted up the number of journeys made in Oxford taxis in the course of one year, then you might be able to come to a balanced view. Does this justify grossly intruding on the private conversations carried out between every innocent passenger? A real sense of balance would surely say not.

But what balanced means, in this context, is what a three-year- old means by fair on Christmas morning. It means I think I ought to get whatever I want. The effectiveness of CCTV has been tested over and over again, and found to be grossly wanting. According to BigBrotherWatch, in one London borough, Havering, CCTV footage was used just three times by police as evidence. Four hundred crimes had, in that year, taken place on local buses. The Metropolitan police's own figures, analysis by civil liberties groups has shown, suggest that 20,000 expenditure is needed on surveillance equipment for every one crime solved thereby.

It's worth pointing out that this expenditure doesn't arrive from nowhere. It comes from crime prevention budgets, which for a long time have been eaten up by CCTV initiatives. Between 1996 and 1998, three quarters of crime prevention budgets were spent on CCTV cameras. A Home Office review shortly after this boom period found that CCTV cameras had a tiny positive effect of 3 per cent improvement in public places, no effect whatsoever on crimes committed on public transport, and a substantial improvement in multi-storey car parks. Was the moral drawn that they could be best used in some places, and not in others? Take a guess. Other studies regularly show that the effects of security cameras decrease quite quickly over time, as people get used to the presence of CCTV on the Underground, and simply stop seeing them. Has that discouraged the steady increase in the numbers of CCTV cameras on all forms of public transport, including private taxis? You bet your sweet bippy, it's done no such thing.

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The State Wants to Know What You're Up to. but Why Do We Let It?
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