I wrote an investigative piece about the actual effectiveness of CCTV for the May issue of Wired Magazine (published in April). I have reprinted it below or you can see it in its full glory on the Wired website.
Investigation: A sharp focus on CCTV
By Heather Brooke|01 April 2010
As the major political parties jostle for position in the run-up to the general election, it’s clear that the way the next government monitors and controls information about us will fundamentally shape British society in the next decades.
Both the Blair and Brown administrations have pursued policies of setting up giant, centralised databases, such as the national Automatic Number plate Recognition (ANPR) system, which tracks vehicles through an expanding network of cameras across Britain’s roads, and the massive communications register behind the Interception Modernisation Programme, intended to log all UK telephone and internet traffic.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, have pledged to scrap the National Identity Register — a database that underlies the proposed ID card, which will store 50 items of personal information about every citizen — along with the children’s database, ContactPoint. (This extensive datastore, which was introduced after the Victoria Climbié inquiry in 2005, records every child’s name, gender, date of birth, address and parental contacts, along with educational and health details.) The Tories have also announced a scaling-back of the DNA database, in order to remove individuals who have never been convicted of a crime. Yet for all this maneuvering, the major parties have been uncharacteristically quiet on the most controversial of all the invasions of UK citizens’ privacy — CCTV.
Although it’s widely supposed that over the past decade there has been a significant increase in the number of surveillance cameras in the UK, it wasn’t until last year that hard numbers emerged via a Freedom of Information request. Big Brother Watch (bigbrotherwatch.org.uk), an anti-surveillance campaign group, found that the number of council-owned cameras had risen from 21,000 to 60,000 in less than ten years — equal to one CCTV camera for every 1,000 people in the country. Its report demonstrated a trebling of investment in local CCTV — even though Home Office research published in 2002 suggested that CCTV has a negligible impact on reducing crime.
Nevertheless, as public perception equates CCTV to tackling crime and antisocial behaviour, most MPs are happy to show up to the unveiling of a new surveillance system in their constituencies. The UK has more CCTV cameras per capita than any European country, yet figures released in July 2009 by the European Commission and United Nations showed Britain’s recorded rate of violent crime surpassed any other country in Europe. Does CCTV do anything to make us safer? If so, at what cost?