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Tuesday, May 4, 1999 Published at 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK


Something to watch over us

Every move you make - cameras are watching

By BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy

Whatever your feelings about privacy, no one cannot afford to be camera shy in modern-day Britain.

Per capita there are more surveillance cameras in the UK than any other country in the world - more than a million according to one recent estimate.

The average city dweller can expect to be captured on film every five minutes. Almost 500,000 low budget CCTV kits have been bought in the last three years.

At this rate, by 2015 there will be no such thing as a secret place in our city centres, according to Simon Davies, of the pressure group Privacy International.

Yet opposition of this type seems to have been increasingly pushed to the margins. When CCTV began to gather pace at the beginning of the 1990s, hostility was common place. The principle objection was that it would ceaselessly erode civil liberties.

[ image: Jill Dando's last movements were caught on CCTV]
Jill Dando's last movements were caught on CCTV
The prospect of "peeping toms" using the technology to "snoop" on individuals brought to mind the Orwellian nightmare of "Big Brother".

Now, as the 50th anniversary looms of the publication of George Orwell's 1984- the book which envisaged a future where everyone would be continuously monitored - "spy" cameras are widely accepted as part of everyday life.

Their role in helping to fight crime has doubtless endeared us to this "necessary evil".

Surveillance camera images featured prominently in the 1993 murder of toddler James Bulger. When pictures of him being led away by two youngsters in 1993 were shown on BBC's Crimewatch, viewers identified the boys as Jon Venables and Robert Thompson.

The boys were arrested and later convicted of the murder.

Government millions

More recently, police have used surveillance images in their efforts to catch the Brixton nail bomber and the killer of BBC presenter Jill Dando.

Naturally, the police and Home Office are among CCTV's keenest supporters. Since 1995 the Home Office has spent £45m on widening the network of cameras across Britain.

[ image: James Bulger being led away to his death]
James Bulger being led away to his death
In March, Home Secretary Jack Straw pledged a further £170m for up to 20,000 more CCTV systems.

The success of video surveillance means it is no longer limited to town centres. Cameras are increasingly being used to survey residential areas, schools, parks, and hospitals. Elsewhere, they can be found on buses, in train stations, night clubs and shops.

Cameras are smaller and more powerful than ever. Some can zoom in on a watch face from 100 yards while new software, currently being tested by Newham Council, can match faces caught on CCTV to those of known criminals.

Flying cameras?

In future a small video camera, the size of a flying insect, might fly into a room to monitor what is going on inside.

But one person's surveillance camera is another's spy lens and several cases have revealed the technology is open to abuse.

In 1996, a video called Caught in the Act prompted outrage when it hit the shops. The film was a compilation of CCTV material showing people in a variety of intimate situations.

[ image: Part of the furniture - cameras are now common indoors]
Part of the furniture - cameras are now common indoors
In the same year an Essex man complained after images of his attempted suicide were caught on surveillance camera and broadcast on national television.

There is also the case of one CCTV operator in Glamorgan who was convicted of more than 200 obscenity charges after using cameras to spy on women and then make obscene phone calls to them from the control room.

To date there has been no direct legislation governing the use of CCTV in the UK. However, this is set to change with the Data Protection Act 1998, which is due to be enforced in June.

This will provide that images of a person have the same protection as written information about them. It should ensure that tapes are only used for crime prevention.

However, watching the watchers is a full-time job in itself and inevitably operators will have to be trusted to obey the laws.

And if one could always rely on trust, there would hardly be a need for CCTV in the first place.

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