Life after privacy: the next generation of public surveillance technology is already here

In the UK, we already have one of the most closely watched societies in the world, and yet our current CCTV arrangements aren’t nearly as effective at fighting crime as we think. What comes next?

CCTV is everywhere in Britain, but it isn't as effective as we think. Photo: Getty
CCTV is everywhere in Britain, but it isn't as effective as we think. Photo: Getty

Smile, you’re on camera: the UK is one of the most closely-watched societies in the world. According to Cheshire police, last year there was one CCTV unit for every 11 people in the country, and the average person was caught on CCTV 70 times a day.

And, generally, we’re all perfectly happy to smile for the cameras. A recent YouGov survey revealed that two thirds of Brits don’t think our use of CCTV infringes civil liberties.

But while the study found that eight out of ten people believe that CCTV helps the police fight crime, it’s not actually all that effective. While a report produced for the Home Office six years ago found that it cut crime in car parks by half, it had little effect elsewhere.

More recently, an internal Metropolitan Police report revealed that, for every 1,000 CCTV cameras in London, only one crime was solved per year.

In other words, CCTV will only be as effective as people already think it is when it becomes a great deal more sophisticated. But the technology is already out there – it’s just a question of working out how far we want to go.

“It’s fair to say that 2000, when we first published our guidance on CCTV, feels like a very long time ago,” says Jonathan Bamford, head of strategic liaison for the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). “Back then, what we meant by CCTV needed little explanation, immediately conjuring up thoughts of video cameras on poles.”

Now, the ICO is re-evaluating its code of practice, considering the implications of everything from using automatic car number plate recognition (ANPR) to identify drivers to the use of flying drones. Which organisations should be allowed to watch us like this? And how should the footage be stored and shared?

Body-worn cameras are one of the biggest areas of expansion. Just last week, it was announced that the Ministry of Justice is to issue them to staff at Chinese and Indian takeaways in Merseyside to record evidence of race hate crimes. They’re already in widespread use by the police themselves: more than 500 Met officers now wear one, and they are being rolled out elsewhere across the country.

While the advantages are undeniable, there are dangers too. As Bamford points out, “The camera may prove invaluable if switched on by a parking enforcement officer when they fear someone is becoming aggressive, but does it need to be recording when someone has simply stopped them to ask for directions?”

There’s something even more unnerving about the use of drones – small, camera-equipped quadcopters that can do a lot more than deliver pizza or books. While there are currently restrictions on the use of drones by the police, police minister Damian Green has called for their wider introduction, saying they should be used “like any other piece of police kit”. There’s a way to go - Merseyside Police’s £13,000 drone, introduced in 2009, was first grounded after falling foul of Civil Aviation Authority rules and then later crashed into the Mersey – but the move is looking inevitable.

Already, a drone has been introduced at Gatwick Airport to allow police to monitor events on the ground, deter crime and identify offenders. They are also being used to inspect National Grid power lines. And, since the murder of a music fan at the Parklife festival last month, police have been trawling through drone footage released by the organisers for clues.

Meanwhile, standard CCTV is changing too. In the UK, there are no plans to equip CCTV cameras and ANPR systems with facial recognition, but this is taking off elsewhere: last month, in the US, a CCTV-integrated facial recognition system was credited for the first time with catching and convicting a thief.

Other developments mean that it’s even possible for CCTV cameras to work out for themselves what’s going on, with new software that can map body movements. According to its developers, it detects aggressive behaviour with 90 per cent accuracy, distinguishing between, say, hugging and throwing a punch. The researchers say the aim is to create a security system that can raise an alarm without any human intervention at all.

It could be argued that privacy is a relatively recent concept. There can’t have been much when people lived a dozen to a house and spent their entire lives in the same village. But can we get used to living that way again?

“Because although CCTV clearly has its benefits, it can also clearly be intrusive,” says Bamford. “What thought’s been given to the views of the people it will be filming? What’s going to happen to the hours and hours of recorded footage and information? And what other less intrusive ideas have been thought about?