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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The polls are bad, but Jeremy Corbyn’s office has a secret weapon

How a shake-up of the leadership team has steadied nerves at the top of Labour. 

If polling had existed back in 1906, Jeremy Corbyn quipped at one recent strategy meeting, the Labour Party would never have got started.

As far as Labour’s direction is concerned, it is that meeting at four o’clock every Monday afternoon that matters. The people who attend it regularly are the Labour leader, his aides, the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, as well as the party’s election co-ordinator, and their respective aides.

In recent weeks, the meetings have been stormy affairs, and not only because the numbers from the party’s own pollsters, BMG Research, mirror the uniformly bleak picture from the public polls. There is also concern over Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager. Murphy is highly rated by Corbyn for having brought increased intensity and efficiency to the leader’s office. Corbyn often struggles to deliver bad news in person and appreciates that Murphy will intervene on his behalf.

Her intensity is not uniformly welcomed. “She could start a fight with her own reflection,” in the wry words of one friend. An argument with Jon Trickett – the Hemsworth MP whose unusual career trajectory took him from being a parliamentary aide to Peter Mandelson to the inner sanctum of Ed Miliband’s leadership and finally to the role of election co-ordinator for Corbyn – led to Trickett going on a two-week strike, recusing himself from vital meetings and avoiding any contact with Murphy.

That row eventually led to Trickett being stripped of his role and banished from the Monday meeting. Murphy had a similar turf war with the campaigns director, Simon Fletcher, which culminated in Fletcher resigning on 17 February. In a letter to staffers, he called on the party to “keep the promise” of Corbyn’s first leadership bid, a period when Fletcher was central and Murphy had yet to start working for the Labour leader.

All of which, in better political weather, would simply be part of the back-and-forth of office politics. However, set against the backdrop of unease about by-elections in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland, and a series of unhelpful leaks, it adds to a sense of vulnerability around the leadership. One loyalist shadow cabinet minister calls it “the most dangerous time” for Corbyn since he was first elected leader.

Why the danger? Contrary to popular myth, the backbone of Jeremy Corbyn’s successive landslide victories was not a hard-pressed twentysomething, struggling to find a fixed job or to get a foot on the housing ladder. The shock troops of Corbynism, at least as far as the internal battle in the Labour Party went, were baby boomers. Many of them were either working in, or on early retirement from, a charity or the public sector, deeply concerned about the rightward drift of British politics and worried about the next generation.

Corbyn’s decision to whip Labour MPs in support of triggering Article 50 – the process whereby Britain will begin its exit from the European Union – was, in their eyes, a double heresy. The vote signalled acceptance that the forces of the Eurosceptic right had won on 23 June, and it conceded that visa-free travel, membership of the single market and freedom of movement are over.

None of this is automatically great news for Corbyn’s internal critics – not least because the vote on Article 50 is rare in being an issue that unites Corbyn with most Labour MPs. Yet it adds to the sense that his leadership has passed its best-before date.

Adding to the general malaise is a series of unhelpful leaks. There was a story in the Sunday Times on 12 February claiming that the leadership was road-testing possible replacements for Corbyn, and on 20 February the Mirror claimed that the Labour leadership had commissioned a poll to find out whether or not the leader should quit his post. These stories are hotly denied by the leader’s office. Some in Corbyn’s inner circle believe they are the work of Trickett, embittered at his demotion.

It is true that Corbyn is not enjoying the job as much as he once did. However, if the conversation shifts from the minutiae of Brexit to his natural terrain of the NHS and the continuing consequences of government cuts on education and the prisons service, he could quickly find himself relishing the role once more.

Corbyn retains two powerful cards. His newly energised office, under Karie Murphy, is one. Although her brisk approach has generated some public rows, the feeling in the leader’s office is that a chief of staff was needed, and Murphy has assumed that role. The media team has also grown sharper with the addition of David Prescott (son of John), Matt Zarb-Cousin and the former Momentum spokesman James Schneider.

Corbyn’s second asset is more unexpected. His rivals inside the party now fear rather than relish an immediate end to his leadership. A former shadow cabinet member splits his supporters into two groups: “idealists and ideologues – the first we can inspire and win over, the second have to be got rid of”. In their view, the idealists have not yet moved away from Corbyn enough to guarantee victory; the ideologues, for their part, will slink off as Corbyn puts the demands of his office above their interests, as he did over Article 50.

Although self-defeating panic has never been a rare commodity in the Labour Party, the settled view of Labour MPs is that their leader must be given time and space rather than hustled out of the door. There is an awareness, too, that MPs who are united in opposition to Corbyn are divided over many other issues.

So, while the inner circle’s Monday meetings might be fraught, and Labour’s current polling would have given Keir Hardie pause, Jeremy Corbyn is safe. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit