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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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.