Page last updated at 22:53 GMT, Monday, 8 May 2006 23:53 UK

Is 'reality CCTV' a step too far?

By Liam Allen
BBC News

Is a digital television service allowing residents of a London borough to watch CCTV footage on their televisions a step too far?

Jan Ashby watches CCTV on her own television
Jan Ashby says she and fellow residents will 'help police'

The increasing number of channels available for viewers to choose from in the current age of satellite and digital television has been well documented.

So too has the public's love of reality TV shows.

It seems the modern day viewer likes nothing better than to sit back and watch "real life" unfolding before their eyes.

The most committed viewers of shows like Channel 4's Big Brother are even happy to watch live streaming of action - or the lack of it - from the Big Brother house.

But does the live streaming of CCTV footage from your neighbourhood on your TV - all in the name of crime prevention - go a step too far?

Set-top box

The 12m Digital Bridge television service, launched in one of London's most deprived boroughs on Monday, pledges to "put every member of the community in the front row of the fight against crime".

The system is being rolled out to 22,000 residents across Shoreditch this summer who will be able to monitor 11 CCTV cameras from the comfort of their living rooms.

The view from the Haberdashers estate
The view from Haberdashers estate where cameras are located

In autumn, it will be extended to 70,000 households across the borough of Hackney before extending across London and some local authorities in the Midlands and the North West next year.

Subscribers will access the service - at a cost of about 3.50 per week - through a set-top box complete with a package that includes digital TV, TV web access and broadband.

"If residents are at home watching the live stream and they spot something they immediately call the police station," explains Digital Bridge chief executive James Morris.

"That image is then linked into the CCTV control room which will then take control of that camera and zoom in on the incident and record. And, of course, police will be sent out."

But civil rights campaigners complain the system is an invasion of privacy and go further by insisting public access to CCTV material is "quite dangerous".

'Monitoring all'

Gareth Crossman, policy director of Liberty, told the BBC news website that CCTV footage "should remain within the control of the local authority".

It could well lead to vigilantism
Gareth Crossman
"While we're all under a duty to help police as best we can, what this basically means is that people will simply be monitoring all sorts of activities whether they're criminal or not.

"It also means that some people are likely to demand the police take action against groups of kids hanging around who aren't actually doing anything illegal."

Local authorities and the police alone should deal with CCTV material, he added.

"It could well lead to vigilantism," he added.

But Digital Bridge spokesman Daniel Hodges said the system was subject to "very rigorous safeguards".

They include the fact that cameras are placed high up and that residents do not have control of cameras and cannot zoom in to follow people.

The reality is that... crime and fear of crime are a very real problem and people want to see their families protected as well as their civil liberties
Daniel Hodges
Digital Bridge
Images rotate from camera to camera every 30 seconds and the transmitted images are encrypted so they cannot be recorded.

That the Digital Bridge was "requested by and set up by" local residents is also significant, Mr Hodge adds.

The project has been introduced by community-based generation body the Shoreditch Trust, which is managed by residents.

The scheme, endorsed by Hackney Police and the London Borough of Hackney, has been funded by the government, European Structural Funds and the private sector.

"This project has very, very strong support within the local community," Mr Hodges says.

"The reality is that, in many communities across the country, crime and fear of crime are a very real problem and people want to see their families protected as well as their civil liberties."

Early adopter

But will residents really want to watch CCTV images rather than their favourite TV shows?

The Digital Bridge team again point to the resident involvement in setting up the facility to view the images.

Jan Ashby
I'm not a nosy neighbour
Jan Ashby

Early adopter Jan Ashby, 57, a resident of Shoreditch's Haberdashers estate, says she and her fellow-residents will "definitely" watch CCTV.

"It's a nice neighbourhood but we've had some problems," she says.

"To many people, especially the older people, it will mean they feel a lot safer.

"It's a way of working with the police because we know they can't be everywhere all the time."

She is quick to dismiss the idea that she may be indulging in high-tech curtain twitching. "I'm not a nosy neighbour," she protests.

"I have been putting it on every day but I won't watch it all day."

Which may be where Mrs Ashby differs from those committed Big Brother fans addicted to live streaming.

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