Somebody is watching over you. Andrew Calcutt monitors the spread of
closed circuit television
You've been framed
The abduction of James Bulger brought video surveillance into the public
eye. Newspapers and television showed blurred images from surveillance systems
operated in Bootle by Marks & Spencer and Amec Building Ltd. Poor-quality
footage was enhanced by IBM and contributed to the arrest of two boys for
Police and politicians said this was proof that closed circuit television
systems (cctv) helped to protect the public. A look at the spread of video
surveillance suggests that its intended purpose is really to help to control
Electronic surveillance is booming. The market in cctv equipment has bucked
the recession to grow by 10 per cent a year. Total spending this year may
reach £300m. The Security Industry Association estimates 150000 'sophisticated'
systems now operate in Britain - not including one-camera set-ups in the
corner shop. It seems that George Orwell's prediction for 1984 was only
a few years premature: 'There was of course no way of knowing whether you
were being watched at any given moment.'
Operating from helicopters, police forces now carry out low-altitude overt
surveillance and high-altitude covert surveillance, often using infra-red
cameras (heli-tele). Some police vehicles are equipped with in-car video.
In Gatso speed traps (named after the Dutch company which developed them),
a video camera is triggered by a wire loop detector. Carlton TV's traffic
news is shot in a Scotland Yard monitoring room equipped with banks of video
screens showing every main thoroughfare in London. Security experts joke
that there are more cameras than trees along London's A40.
The Metropolitan Police are experimenting with video surveillance in target
areas like Elephant and Castle, Peckham and King's Cross. Police videos
were used in the manhunt following the Trafalgar Square riot of 1990. In
Nottingham, Hyson Green traders' association has asked for police cameras
to monitor the Radford Road area. In Newcastle and South Shields, Northumbria
police are operating cctv systems covering the whole town centre. The Newcastle
system was installed last December at a cost of £400 000.
It is common practice for town-centre systems to be connected to police
stations, but operated by local authorities. Councils in Birmingham, Bournemouth,
Coventry, King's Lynn and Plymouth have installed complex systems. King's
Lynn is staging seminars - 'the King's Lynn experience' - advertising the
capabilities of its 46-camera system. Bournemouth council has topped King's
Lynn by installing 47 cameras along the seafront.
Smaller cctv systems are used to monitor markets, housing estates, underground
car parks, public transport and hospitals. Newham council set up an eight-camera
system in Upton Park. Glasgow district council has installed cctv covering
7000 homes. The London borough of Greenwich introduced similar equipment
on the Woolwich Common estate. The Security Gazette reports 'many
local authority housing departments opting for a cctv package with a back-up
recording system'. British Rail and London Underground operate video systems.
Stoke Mandeville Hospital recently installed an eight-camera cctv: screens
linked to the same system pipe in entertainment and advertising.
Surveillance is equally widespread in the private sector. Every Premier
League and Football League ground in England is now equipped with cctv.
Most branches of building societies and banks are also equipped; so are
many cashpoints. The Financial Times reports that 'surveillance equipment
is installed as standard in most new shopping centres'. A large department
store would expect to pay upwards of £50000 for a 10-camera system.
The Dixon's chain represents the state-of-the-art: 500 shops linked to a
central monitoring room at a secret location in Hertfordshire.
Recent technological developments include fastscan (broadcast quality pictures
transmitted down telephone lines at lightning speeds), and multiplexing
(pictures from 16 cameras simultaneously viewed and recorded on a single
screen). Video systems are getting cheaper. Edinburgh university scientists
have developed domestic equipment which could retail for £100. At the
other end of the scale, the Security Industry Association believes that
many more local councils will install city-wide systems (18 cameras and
upwards). In the workplace, cctv is being combined with access control equipment
to monitor and document the movements of employees. Soon everyone in Britain
will have been recorded on cctv.
Video surveillance is often described as a weapon in the fight against crime.
But a spokesman for the Inspectorate of the Security Industry admits that
'it was first put in to monitor crowd behaviour, as embryonic crowd control...monitoring
what is going on in general'.
At the recent conference on private policing organised by the Association
of Metropolitan Authorities, the director of the Oxford Street Plaza gave
an insight into the sort of crowd control techniques which may be implemented
in response to information gathered from video surveillance.
She described how a shopping mall was 'swamped by youths' coming out of
a Saturday lunchtime disco. They were 'lining the balustrading', turning
the mall into 'effectively a community centre'. She admitted they 'were
not committing a real crime', but they were 'not shopping', and 'their presence
created a perception of fear'. Security teams monitored the youths and kept
them moving. They were repeatedly told to 'please continue your shopping'
until, after a few weeks, 'it was no longer fun to visit the plaza' and
'the problem was eradicated'.
Speaking at a conference for senior police officers, assistant chief constable
Malcolm George (Greater Manchester Police) declared that video systems can
secure 'freedom from...the drug dealer, the football hooligan'. It's worth
remembering that the police have stretched the meaning of 'drug dealer'
to include any black man under 30, while 'football hooligan' is now a blanket
term applied to white working class youth. As Jeremy Beadle might say, next
time it could be you.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 55, May 1993