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Thursday, 7 February, 2002, 10:46 GMT
Watching your every move
A CCTV camera
There are 2.5 million CCTV cameras in the UK
Jane Wakefield

The vision of cameras watching your every move is close to becoming a reality, with analysts predicting a tenfold increase in CCTV in the UK in the next five years.

The business of surveillance is about to undergo a radical shift as digital cameras become commonplace. Even now, CCTV is the ever-present eye in shopping centres, railway stations and airports and it is most definitely watching you.

According to statistics, the average citizen is caught on CCTV cameras 300 times a day.

There are 25 million CCTV cameras in operation worldwide, with 2.5 million in the UK.

Impact of digital

In Reading town centre alone, there are 327 CCTV cameras, a handful on the street, 140 in the shopping centre and 161 in the main carpark.

And the chances of getting caught on camera are set to rise, particularly with the use of digital CCTV.

It tends to move offenders elsewhere

Hugh Marriage,
Crime reduction officer
While analogue cameras have limited range and carry a less-than-perfect image, digital cameras will be able to record more and in better quality.

"Analogue only records about 5% of what is going on, whereas digital systems can record everything and there is no deterioration in the quality," explains Oliver Vellacott, the head of IndigoVison, makers of surveillance systems.

Digital cameras can also be networked together, something not possible with analogue because the signal has to be sent along a dedicated line and can travel no further than about 170 kilometres (100 miles).

Mr Vellacott predicts a scenario where digital cameras are all-pervasive - not just in streets but in all public spaces.

"This opens up the debate about whether the public cameras should be open to the public so that everyone sees as much as everyone else and this would turn the idea of Big Brother on its head," he says.

Reduction of crime?

The UK Government is convinced of the benefits of CCTV. Hugh Marriage, the Home Office's crime reduction officer for the south-east of England, says it definitely reduces crime.

A CCTV camera
CCTV cameras will be on every street
"There is no doubt about the benefits.

"It tends to move offenders elsewhere so in a town centre with a good surveillance system you will still get some level of drug dealing for instance, but shoplifting will be eliminated because there are no shops outside of the area with the cameras," he explains.

Not all criminologists agree with this view. A comprehensive study of the impact of CCTV in Glasgow found no evidence it reduced crime or the fear of crime.

The government's interest in CCTV is not just about crime prevention, though. It also saves money.

A court hearing with a guilty verdict saves around 3,000 to 5,000," said Mr Marriage. "And CCTV pictures means there have been an enormous increase in guilty verdicts."

Home cameras

There is a huge difference between cameras on the streets and having them intrude into our homes in true Orwellian style.

CCTV facts
25 million cameras worldwide
2.5 million in UK
Only fraction of cameras so far are digital
Brussels airport is testing 700 digital cameras
Digital allows for universal coverage, a network of cameras and courtroom quality images
People now, rightly or wrongly "expect" to be watched in public spaces.

But would they raise objections if the surveillance were extended to their private spaces?

Big Brother has already become mainstream as thousands of folk queue up to take part in and watch Channel 4's hugely successful TV show.

Watching other people in their homes has become something of a national obsession.

The Big Brother vision is not just a TV gimmick. Many homes are already hooked up to CCTV and firms are increasingly selling the benefits of spy cameras to check up on the nanny from the comfort of your desk.

In the future, homes will be fitted with surveillance cameras as standard, says Mr Vellacott. It will be driven by insurance firms and the desire to keep an eye on your property, he believes.

"Then the issues of privacy get really thorny. There will be secure access to home cameras but the concern will be that nothing is foolproof from hackers," he points out.

A world networked to CCTV could mean a more transparent society, with public access to large corporations and government offices.

Already in France there are public webcams in nuclear plants to reassure citizens that the work going on is safe and above board.

See also:

16 Jan 02 | England
CCTV of murdered widow released
11 Jan 02 | Northern Ireland
Security cameras for riot area
11 Jan 02 | England
New CCTV for vandal-hit metro
17 Dec 01 | England
CCTV clues over 'callous' killing
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