BBC’s Newsnight current affairs programme has used the Freedom of Information Act to ask almost 100 Local Authorities in the UK how many video surveillance cameras they operate. There are some really nice graphics here, which demonstrate what a ridiculous number of cameras we have, and particularly the way in which CCTV is becoming seen as ‘normal’ in all areas, not just big cities.
This brings up the discussion we were having earlier in the year with David Aaronovitch of The Times and Paul Lewis of The Guardian (see here, here, here, here and here!), who claimed that members of Surveillance Studies Network had knowingly fabricated figures. In fact these were scenarios and broad guesstimates and never presented as anything more than that. Newsnight in common with most media doesn’t get this either and thinks that its survey means that “there are almost one million fewer CCTV cameras in the UK than previously thought.”
However there survey was only of Local Authorities. It did not cover private systems in public open space or quasi-public space like transport systems (railways, buses and the underground) and shopping malls, let along cameras in private space. The guesstimates made by Clive Norris and Mike McCahill way back in 2001 included all cameras in public space. Norris and Gary Armstrong’s little scenario of being spotted by up to 300 cameras a day most certainly included purely private ones too – as did a real life version of the same kind of scenario conducted by The Times earlier this year – in fact, private cameras covering public space were almost twice as numerous as state ones. So in fact there are probably many more CCTV cameras than “previously thought.” The important thing is that there is almost no control over their proliferation whether nominally ‘public’ or ‘private’ and, as I wrote the other day, almost nothing apart from conscience that seems to be stopping operators from using ‘augmented’ CCTV because extra functionality like audio comes as standard on camera units these days.
For me, of course, the really interesting figures are the international comparative ones: that there are more cameras operated by the average London borough than by the whole metropolis of Tokyo. Yet in other ways, the figures are probably closer – Tokyo is as comprehensively covered as London in terms of public transport. Nothing is quite as clear-cut as it seems if you restrict the research to one type of camera system. Still, thank-you very much to the Newsnight researchers for performing a useful public service!