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Living under the CCTV gaze

Britain has more CCTV cameras per capita than any other country. And Michael Goldfarb has the traffic tickets to prove it.

Street graffiti by elusive graffiti artist Banksy is seen on a wall, next to a CCTV camera, in central London Nov. 25, 2008. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

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."