I’ve been having an interesting little private exchange with a David Aaronovitch of The Times newspaper, who seems to think he has uncovered a terrible conspiracy… and I think I am about to be accused (tomorrow) of being ‘cavalier’ with the truth and of misleading the public. Interestingly enough this is going to be in the same newspaper that was the only one that tried to rubbish the Information Commissioner back in 2006 when we published our Report on the Surveillance Society and indeed were actively lobbying against his reappointment. I suppose someone has to argue the establishment case…
What David has been e-mailing me about is the validity of figures concerning the number of CCTV cameras in Britain that journalists have been happily spreading about for the last ten years. These figures are the ‘4.2million CCTV cameras in Britain’, and the ‘person can be captured on 300 different cameras in a day.’ He seems to think that it is an urgent matter of national importance if these old figures aren’t ‘accurate’ or apply to the average person. Well, they were and are purely indicative – they aren’t ‘accurate’ and never were, and the latter one doesn’t apply to a typical Briton and neither Clive Norris, whose figures they are, nor myself, nor any other credible surveillance studies academic that I know, has ever claimed that they are and do.
The first figure derives from what Professor Norris openly described as a ‘guesstimate’ in his working paper with Mike McCahill on CCTV in London that was done for the EU’s UrbanEye project. Based on a casual count of cameras in one small neighbourhood in London in around 2000 (not the City of London where cameras were much more concentrated even then) it aimed to get a very loose handle on the scale of the spread of CCTV in Britain. The police at the time claimed that the real figure was in hundreds of thousands, but they were only talking about public cameras, and they had just as little idea of the extent of CCTV.
The other figure that of 300 cameras a day came from a little fictional vignette that Professor Norris and Dr Gary Armstrong wrote for their book, The Maximum Surveillance Society, which came out back in 1999. It was simply designed to illustrate how many cameras a person could possibly be caught be in any one day. I was thinking it would actually be very hard for this to be that likely even now, except perhaps in the very core of global cities like London, but then there are over 300 cameras on the university campus where I am currently, and I haven’t even started on all the private cameras, the public cameras in the city, the traffic cameras, the cameras in the buses, banks, shops, cafes, restaurants, bars, in the hotel etc. etc. I would estimate that I am caught by around 100 cameras when I am out and about here and this isn’t even a city that considers itself to be particularly ‘under surveillance.’
The truth is that no-one knows exactly how many cameras there are in Britain or indeed in any country in the world. We deliberately used words like ‘may’ or ‘can be’ in reference to these figures in our Report on the Surveillance Society because they are so rough, so inaccurate – and we were quite clear that this was not in any case a report about CCTV; if anything we tried to downplay CCTV and get to other technologies and techniques, such as dataveillance and RFID, and more importantly the way connections and links are being made, and boundaries blurred. ‘Millions’ may be about as accurate as we can guess for the UK. But does it matter if there are 1 million, 4.2 million or 10 million? Not hugely. It matters as one crude indicator of a surveillance society, but even then, the number of cameras is a very crude measure and more cameras does not necessarily mean more comprehensive coverage or better pictures, or more ‘control’. For example, would it be worse or better if I was only seen by one camera in a day, but that camera was there all the time and I was constantly being assessed on my performance (as for example is the case with many workers in call centres)? The Guardian today seems to understand this – in its report on the high-tech control room in Westminster, it clearly states that ‘no-one knows’ how many cameras there are (before quoting some even more made-up figure than ours!).
I know the media likes its easy numbers, but an old saying about not being able to see the wood for the trees comes to mind… As a researcher, I am more interested in characteristics of the wood than the specific number of trees. Now if there were no trees at all or very few, that would matter. And in my current comparative project it has some importance as one of the many indicators of what constitutes a surveillance society that I am looking into. So in a couple of year’s time I may have more of an idea of from any cameras there really are in Britain. One of the things I am trying to do during my current project is develop better ways of assessing ‘how much surveillance’ there is, and what it means. Because that is the important issue – meaning. Does it matter if there were 1/6 or 1/7 or 1/8 of the population of the former East Germany who were recruited as informers? You’ll find all those as educated guesses in the literature. What matters was that there was a culture of informing that pervaded every action. It was a society that became increasingly based on deception and distrust.
The key questions with CCTV are:
- first of all, why are there any cameras, and particular any cameras in public space, at all? Surely there was a line crossed when the first use of CCTV occurred. What was the reasoning?
- why did CCTV spread so quickly to so many places, and was so little contested?
- why is CCTV now considered so ‘normal’ in Britain?
- connected to this, why do the myths of CCTV’s effectiveness continue to be spread when all of the evidence shows a small and very limited impact on crime?
- what kind of a society does pervasive CCTV create? what are the social effects? what kind of social and cultural responses are there?
Unfortunately the media doesn’t seem to like depth or uncertainty. Maybe that was our real mistake – to overestimate the intelligence of the media. I have asked them for a right of reply – I am more than happy to debate the issue in public. Let’s see if that happens…