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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 murder.

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 us.

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

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