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

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?

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Why is Labour surging in Wales?

A new poll suggests Labour will not be going gently into that good night. 

Well where did that come from? The first two Welsh opinion polls of the general election campaign had given the Conservatives all-time high levels of support, and suggested that they were on course for an historic breakthrough in Wales. For Labour, in its strongest of all heartlands where it has won every general election from 1922 onwards, this year had looked like a desperate rear-guard action to defend as much of what they held as possible.

But today’s new Welsh Political Barometer poll has shaken things up a bit. It shows Labour support up nine percentage points in a fortnight, to 44 percent. The Conservatives are down seven points, to 34 per cent. Having been apparently on course for major losses, the new poll suggests that Labour may even be able to make ground in Wales: on a uniform swing these figures would project Labour to regain the Gower seat they narrowly lost two years ago.

There has been a clear trend towards Labour in the Britain-wide polls in recent days, while the upwards spike in Conservative support at the start of the campaign has also eroded. Nonetheless, the turnaround in fortunes in Wales appears particularly dramatic. After we had begun to consider the prospect of a genuinely historic election, this latest reading of the public mood suggests something much more in line with the last century of Welsh electoral politics.

What has happened to change things so dramatically? One possibility is always that this is simply an outlier – the "rogue poll" that basic sampling theory suggests will happen every now and then. As us psephologists are often required to say, "it’s just one poll". It may also be, as has been suggested by former party pollster James Morris, that Labour gains across Britain are more apparent than real: a function of a rise in the propensity of Labour supporters to respond to polls.

But if we assume that the direction of change shown by this poll is correct, even if the exact magnitude may not be, what might lie behind this resurgence in Labour’s fortunes in Wales?

One factor may simply be Rhodri Morgan. Sampling for the poll started on Thursday last week – less than a day after the announcement of the death of the much-loved former First Minister. Much of Welsh media coverage of politics in the days since has, understandably, focused on sympathetic accounts of Mr Morgan’s record and legacy. It would hardly be surprising if that had had some positive impact on the poll ratings of Rhodri Morgan’s party – which, we should note, are up significantly in this new poll not only for the general election but also in voting intentions for the Welsh Assembly. If this has played a role, such a sympathy factor is likely to be short-lived: by polling day, people’s minds will probably have refocussed on the electoral choice ahead of them.

But it could also be that Labour’s campaign in Wales is working. While Labour have been making modest ground across Britain, in Wales there has been a determined effort by the party to run a separate campaign from that of the UK-wide party, under the "Welsh Labour" brand that carried them to victory in last year’s devolved election and this year’s local council contests. Today saw the launch of the Welsh Labour manifesto. Unlike two years ago, when the party’s Welsh manifesto was only a modestly Welshed-up version of the UK-wide document, the 2017 Welsh Labour manifesto is a completely separate document. At the launch, First Minister Carwyn Jones – who, despite not being a candidate in this election is fronting the Welsh Labour campaign – did not even mention Jeremy Corbyn.

Carwyn Jones also represented Labour at last week’s ITV-Wales debate – in contrast to 2015, when Labour’s spokesperson was then Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith. Jones gave an effective performance, being probably the best performer alongside Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. In fact, Wood was also a participant in the peculiar, May-less and Corbyn-less, ITV debate in Manchester last Thursday, where she again performed capably. But her party have as yet been wholly unable to turn this public platform into support. The new Welsh poll shows Plaid Cymru down to merely nine percent. Nor are there any signs yet that the election campaign is helping the Liberal Democrats - their six percent support in the new Welsh poll puts them, almost unbelievably, at an even lower level than they secured in the disastrous election of two year ago.

This is only one poll. And the more general narrowing of the polls across Britain will likely lead to further intensification, by the Conservatives and their supporters in the press, of the idea of the election as a choice between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn as potential Prime Ministers. Even in Wales, this contrast does not play well for Labour. But parties do not dominate the politics of a nation for nearly a century, as Labour has done in Wales, just by accident. Under a strong Conservative challenge they certainly are, but Welsh Labour is not about to go gently into that good night.

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

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