LONDON — "Gotcha!" Walking anywhere in Britain you can practically here the call. "Gotcha!" Wherever you go, whatever you do, someone in a hidden bunker is probably monitoring a CCTV image streaming in from the street where you are doing it. "Gotcha!"
There are more closed-circuit television cameras in Britain than any other country in the world. There are so many that the exact number is not known, but one estimate puts it as high as 4.8 million, roughly one for every 12 people.
In London alone, there are half a million CCTV cameras. That number is reliable because a year ago the Metropolitan Police, London's police service, used it when announcing its plans to provide security for the upcoming 2012 Olympics. The Met has 10,000 CCTVs in place around the British capital. The other 490,000 are owned by shopkeepers, private citizens, local councils and Transport for London, which operates the underground and bus lines.
If the Met follows up on its plan, it will be the first time all the city's cameras have been networked together.
This is what worries civil liberties campaigners. There is a massive surveillance infrastructure in place but no one is really in charge of it, according to campaigner Guy Herbert. There are virtually no regulations at all on CCTVs. For example, there are no laws governing CCTV footage use, Herbert alleged, and this has led to abuse. "There are instances where images have been sold on for public amusement."
People monitoring CCTV feeds have sold images of everything from couples canoodling in their living rooms, to children of celebrities staggering out of their cars drunk, as well as compilation tapes of the most bone-headed driving maneuvers. Those whose images were sold were readily recognizable; none had been consulted. In Herbert's view, that is a privacy invasion.
Another concern of campaigners: The police can demand CCTV footage from anyone operating a camera, and they don't need a warrant to do it.
"There is nothing wrong with CCTV footage being taken by a shopkeeper or the police," Herbert said. "But it must be used for a purpose and the tapes should not be kept in perpetuity."
The growth of CCTV as a law enforcement tool goes back to the 1980s, when soccer hooliganism was rampant. With the encouragement of the police, wealthy teams like Manchester United began to install the swivel-eyes in their stadiums and in the concourses outside, where trouble frequently broke out. The cameras were considered a success at soccer stadiums.
Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, use of the cameras expanded dramatically.
Crime fighting and the fight against terrorism are the main justifications given for allowing the number of cameras to grow. But according to British government figures, 80 percent of CCTV images are of too poor a quality to help a criminal investigation. Herbert points out, "CCTV is not effective in preventing terrorist attacks, it is only useful after the fact in providing a visual narrative of what happened."
In fact, the real reason for the growth in CCTV cameras may be more mundane: cash — lots of it — from drivers breaking the law.
For example, last year, the London borough of Camden, with a mere 130 cameras, managed to bring in 26.3 million pounds from tickets issued after moving violations were caught on tape. That's $37.6 million raised in one borough out of the 32 that make up greater London. The council does not say how much the CCTV system costs to operate, or how much the salaries are of the dozens of people who review the footage and send out the tickets, but it is an effective way of raising extra money without raising taxes. Camden is not operating the system at a loss.
Camden is not alone. Other London boroughs use CCTV footage in the same way: In the interest of journalistic honesty, I should say I have been the recipient of three moving violation notices in recent years gleaned from CCTV footage. Only one of them was completely legitimate. The others had mitigating circumstances, but you cannot fight city hall or photographic evidence.
Britain's home secretary, Jacqui Smith, has called for "common sense rules" on how CCTV cameras are used. Herbert wants something more: Legislation setting up laws governing their use in a way that doesn't infringe on privacy, and the creation of "an accountable authority" for the CCTV grid.
More dispatches from GlobalPost correspondent Michael Goldfarb: