How many cameras are there in Britain? (4)

Despite the fact that it really doesn’t ‘work’, the growth of CCTV is almost out of control in Britain, and it is probably only the recession that is holding this growth back at all…

Here is another episode in the ongoing saga that was sparked off by my discussion with David Aaronovitch about supposedly misleading figures used in our Report on the Surveillance Society, leading to his rather weak comment piece in The Times, my pre-emptive response here, and Paul Lewis’ similar piece in The Guardian.

Aaronovitch’s own newspaper, The Times, has now published a story by one of its reporters, Kaya Burgess, in which she counted the cameras on her commute into work, and found there were a total of 281 cameras on her 3.1 mile route, or one camera every 18 metres on average. 108 of these were state-placed and the rest were installed by private operators (shops,homes etc.). As the article points out, and this is something I have been arguing for years, the growth of private cameras is remarkable and of course, almost completely unregulated.

The figure of 281 is remarkably similar to Clive Norris’ little fictional tale of ‘Thomas Kearns’ of 1999 which sparked the ‘we are watched by 300 cameras a day’ stories in the press, and which was the subject of Aaronovitch’s piece. Perhaps we should feel smug, but that still isn’t the point. There never was an ‘accurate’ figure to be correct about. It was a possibility. Now it seems that the possibility has been bypassed by some distance, at least for London. Because remember, Kaya’s journey was merely the journey into work. It was not even a small portion of the day. It did not count cameras at work, or those she might encounter during her working day, nor those her image might be captured by if she went out for a post-work meal and drinks… her 281 might well end up being double that by the end of the day, and she was not doing any of the more ‘unrealistic’ things that Norris’ ‘busy Londoner’ was.

Of course, this density of cameras is by no means uniform across London or across the country, nor is there one central ‘Big Brother’ behind the cameras, no one guard in the tower. We live not in the Panopticon of Jeremy Bentham, made notorious by Michel Foucault’s analysis, but in what contemporary French theorist, Bruno Latour, called, an ‘oligopticon’. In some places we are watched (and even known) intensely and in others hardly at all, and we move through these different zones of varying intensities of surveillance in our days and our lives.

Does that make the huge number and high density of cameras in some places ethically more acceptable? Hardly. Despite the fact that it really doesn’t ‘work’, the growth of CCTV is almost out of control in Britain, and it is probably only the recession that is holding this growth back at all. The Times report also notes that the Local Authority cameras appeared to be placed in clear violation of the existing voluntary CCTV Code of Practice which states that CCTV should be installed in areas of high crime, not just at regular intervals everywhere. Senior police officers I have talked to agree with this. They don’t see the need for cameras on every corner; they want to target crime hot spots effectively and efficiently. And of course, the private cameras aren’t really regulated much, and those on private homes not at all. The important thing, is to have stronger, clearer regulation of CCTV as the House of Lords Constitution Committee recently demanded. This new regulation should control and perhaps even reverse the growth in the number of cameras by specifying much more clearly the circumstances and contexts under which CCTV is appropriate and how it is to be discussed and approved, so that it becomes a possibility to be debated not the normality to be expected.

(thanks to Charles Raab for bringing this piece to my attention and for being fair about The Times!)

Author: David

I'm David Murakami Wood. I live on Wolfe Island, in Ontario, and am Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies and an Associate Professor at Queen's University, Kingston.

3 thoughts on “How many cameras are there in Britain? (4)”

  1. I agree your point that Surveillance Society has nothing to do with the accuracy of the number 300, that its (possible) inaccuracy would not prove anything, and that it was only meant to stimulate the debate on to the rise and rise of surveillance and control in UK,

    Indeed, the original piece by Norris and McCahill did nothing wrong in this sense. However, many pieces (not all of them of course) after that simply reported this number as verified data coming from a research, rather than a mere fictional number with thought-provoking intents. I think this is the main target of the article (or, anyway, it is what I find of interest on it) and such a point is not aimed to downplaying the surveillance threat, rather to criticise a clear, and incredibly widespread misuse of a single number. I’m guilty too, as I reported it on my MA dissertation without saying (cause I didn’t know, I’ve to admit) that it was simply coming from a fictional account. You did it very well when talking about “guesstimation”. However the Report is not as clear. This is why I agree , if not with the tone of the article, with its critique.

    I’m sorry, but if someone use a fictional data should clearly state it. This is a matter of academic standard, regardless surveillance or any other field of research. Therefore to me this is not an example of ‘point missing’ article, as you put in another comment. Quite the opposite, it seems that you missed its point.



  2. Thanks for the comment, Andrea. I don’t think I missed the point of the article, although I must admit I found it hard to get anything substantial out of it. I just disagree that this is very important. What is more important, as with the Report, is that it has sparked debate – and more research. I think in retrospect, we probably should have used the word ‘guesstimate’ in the report itself and I think we were rather naive to expect that people would read the references we gave (and we did give a clear reference) – which one columnist finally got around to reading three years later. I was in general rather naive about dealing with the media back then – it was only afterwards that I started getting interviewed all the time and learning the tricks of the trade. I guess we didn’t even expect that level of interest. From what I know now I would have written it differently, certainly.

    In every interview I have given on surveillance to the UK press since – and that’s a lot – where they have asked me about figures for the numbers of cameras, I have made it quite clear where the figures come from and that we just don’t know any ‘accurate’ numbers. However, guess what always gets left out of the reports they write? Uncertainty. The media doesn’t like it. I remember the Daily Mail at the time took one tiny sentence about the growth of RFID tagging in animals and how it was very slowly increasing in people, from the Report and created the headline ‘We will all be chipped like dogs in a decade’! And when Clive Norris and I talked to The House of Lords Constitution Committee we also told the story – it’s all there. They got it. So I take your point – but do I think it would have made any difference to what the media reported? Probably not.

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