Saturday, 8 November 2008

Let's sort out CCTV

If there is one subject likely to boil the blood of those of a libertarian attitude it is closed circuit television cameras. I seem to remember reading that the UK has more per head of population and more per square mile than any other country in the world. It really doesn't matter much whether that is true because we certainly have a lot. Some argue they are an unwarranted infringement of liberty, others argue they are a necessary tool against crime. I have never considered these two arguments to be necessarily inconsistent.

In order to discuss CCTV cameras sensibly we need to leave all exaggeration and hyperbole out of account. Leave aside 1984 and Big Brother, leave aside the Stasi, leave aside Goebbels and Hitler. Just look at the facts.

If I drive from FatBigot Towers in Islington to anywhere in the centre of London almost all of my journey will be within sight of a CCTV camera. If I walk anywhere in the centre of any of our major cities I am likely to be within sight of a CCTV camera at all times. The government will tell us that this is necessary so that serious crime can be recorded and the perpetrators brought to justice. There is no denying that the availability of recordings of activity on the streets is an immensely useful tool for the police in their difficult task of preventing crime and apprehending those who have committed crimes. Mobile CCTV cameras were used to record perceived trouble spots prior to big football matches as long ago as the 1980s. No one was being spied-on, it was the police doing their job. When they knew there was a risk of football hooligans gathering and making trouble they recorded the scene so that they would have evidence if trouble in fact occurred. All the librarians and flower arrangers attending the pub before a game were not imperilled by being filmed, they were among the likely victims because mass brawls always take down a few gentle, innocent souls and the cameras were there to help protect them.

On Wednesday I had a brief drink with some fellow bloggists before taking a leisurely stroll in the autumnal air. When I arrived at the pub there was a little Smart Car outside with a CCTV camera attached to the roof. It was aimed at the door of the pub and, no doubt, recorded my sinfulness as I stood outside in the drizzle and took a ciggy or two. I was not surprised to see it there. The prospect of some people gathering at that pub at that time had been mooted for weeks and the police were in no position to know whether the gathering would be just for a pint and a stroll or would have a more sinister aspect. Nor did they know whether it would be just 25-30 people, as it was, or 400. When they hear of a potential gathering they would be failing in their duty if they did not take reasonable steps to keep an eye on events.

Using CCTV technology to keep an eye on events so that trouble can be nipped in the bud when it appears to be starting or to provide evidence if trouble really does kick-off seems to me to be at the heart of the work the police have to do in central London. Was my liberty infringed simply because I was filmed while I had a ciggy outside a pub? Absolutely not. My liberty can only be infringed if (without good reason) I am prevented from or impeded in doing something lawful. Arguably it could also be infringed if something I do is rendered unlawful by an unjust law, but that raises issues I will address another time.

So, what's the problem? The problem is not in being filmed while you are in a public place. The problem lies in how and for what purposes that recording is used. I'll move away from last Wednesday and describe an experience I had with a CCTV camera earlier in the year. I was taking a therapeutic curry one evening and, forever sinful, stepped outside for a ciggy. Two people were already smoking on the pavement and I noticed that the CCTV camera at the end of the road (about 30 yards away) was pointed directly at the three of us. It is a permanent camera but is not fixed, it is operated from a control room and can be moved through 360 degrees. It was installed expressly to record traffic movements at an accident hotspot. Yet it was pointed at three wicked smokers taking a quick puff before returning to their Vindaloos. We did not pose a threat to nearby parked cars because there weren't any. We did not show any overt sign of being trouble makers, all three of us were as old as the curry house and dressed neatly. Yet someone in a control room thought it appropriate to record us to the exclusion of everything else within the camera's range. I found it rather creepy. Had it been panning the area and caught me occasionally there would have been nothing even remotely sinister, but it remained aimed in one direction. My concern was that it was hoping to find someone discarding a cigarette end in the street so that a fixed penalty notice could be served by post a few days later. As it was, we all put the charred remnants from our filthy habit back in the packet. I felt very uncomfortable.

In that instance it was not being filmed that worried me, it was the thought of how the recording might be used. A camera installed to keep an eye on traffic appeared to have turned into a general observation tower from which all those threatening to escape from the strictest letter of obscure by-laws could be shot.

Perhaps the problem lies in many of the cameras being under the control of local councils. They are always strapped for cash because they have street football coordinators, work-life balance advisers, holistic therapists and climate change counsellors to pay. £50 here and £50 there, it all adds up, they have a clear incentive to use every means open to them to raise money by imposing fines for petty infringements. Yet it results in people seeing the cameras as a threat, as something requiring them to always look over their shoulder for fear that taking a handkerchief out of their pocket might have dislodged a receipt from Mr Patel's Mini Mart. Picking up the receipt is no defence, once it's been dropped and recorded the penalty is incurred.

It has nothing to do with policing crime and everything to do with maximising revenue, the worst consequence is that people walk around in a state of apprehension that they might be doing something wrong without knowing it and receive an expensive brown envelope a few days later. That is where the infringement of liberty comes in. If liberty means anything it means being able to walk around in your home country without having to look over your shoulder all the time for fear of a fixed penalty notice.

So, let's go back to last Wednesday. Am I at risk of adverse consequences flowing from having been filmed outside a pub close to Trafalgar Square? Ah, now, that's the problem. You see, I don't know. The answer should be a resounding "no". I did nothing wrong, I even had a portable ashtray with me to collect my ash so that it would not litter the pavement. But I cannot take comfort from that because I don't know how the recording of my flabby features might be used. Have I been placed on a database of potential troublemakers? Am I to expect a visit from the anti-obesity task force because I displayed more than two chins in a public place? Will a special eye be kept on me next time I venture into the centre of my home city? I simply don't know. And that's the problem. I should know. To be precise, I should know that I have not been given any label or put in any category. They recorded a fat middle-aged man having a lawful smoke outside a pub in which he had a lawful drink before taking a lawful stroll. No alarm bells should be ringing, but I cannot know whether that is indeed the case.

The problem with CCTV cameras is not their presence but how they are used. Those who argue that they are a necessary and appropriate means of combatting crime are absolutely right, but that does not prevent them also being an unwarranted infringement of liberty.


The Great Simpleton said...

Some would argue that the camera's did their job of stopping you littering, but a bit of a sledgehammer.

You are correct, the problem with cameras, like all tools, is the person using them. Sadly the proliferation of cameras has been driven by probably the most illiberal peacetime Government we have had since Cromwell. When considered alongside the abuse of RIPA,the politicisation of the police and civil service, the move to control Coroner's courts, the move to remove jury from an increasing number of offences, to name but a few, and the picture starts to look bleak.

Did I mention the National Database and ID cards?

As Benjamin Franklin said:
"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." (Wiki)

What also worries me is the enthusiasm with which a large section of the population support these moves. If you dare to raise concerns in certain quarters you instantly labelled a terrorist sympathiser, supporter of paedos, liberal do-gooder or whatever mindless phrase has been fed to the hard of thinking,

Shades said...

So you weren't one of those up against the wall then?

TheFatBigot said...

No wall for me on that occasion.

Old Holborn said...

CCTV does not prevent crime. It just records it

TheFatBigot said...

Not with you there, Mr Holborn.

Cameras ensure I don't drop ciggy ends in the gutter as I might otherwise be tempted to do. Of course it is only in a bizarre parallel world that anyone would think dropping a ciggy end to be a crime, but we've reached that world.

They can also alert the police to potential trouble so they can head it off at the pass.