Connect to share and comment

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.

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:

Is the English pub at death's door?

Hamburg wobbles, does not fall (yet)

Empire exhibits hold lessons for America