Watching you watching me

We are the most spied-upon nation in the world, with some of us caught on camera hundreds of times a

Getting into the CCTV control centre for Westminster without an official escort would challenge even James Bond. As instructed, I arrive at the Coventry Street entrance to the Trocadero shopping centre in central London at 10.45am, and phone "a man called Robin". He sends his deputy, Daniel Brown, to meet me. Brown looks me up and down, checking me out. Wearing a dapper dark suit and striped shirt, and a lot of gel in his spiked hair, the 29-year-old CCTV operations co-ordinator looks more like a City trader than someone responsible for keeping a watchful eye over tens of thousands of Londoners every day.

He leads me around the corner to Wardour Street. We enter a dark and dank warehouse and negotiate our way past men making a mighty din as they fill metal cages with brown boxes of consumer stuff. We take a lift - which stinks - two floors down to the sub-basement. There, we walk through sub terranean concrete corridors, past industrial-sized dustbins emitting odours of rotting food, towards a pristine wooden door that seems out of place in this sewer-like setting. Brown taps in a code, and we walk through.

There's another door. We wait for the first one to lock behind us and then walk through the second. I can barely believe what I see next.

I am inside what can only be described as a bunker of spies. Deep beneath the Trocadero - where unsuspecting tourists are poring over maps of the city over coffee at Starbucks and bored teens are playing beat-'em-up arcade games - there is a state-of-the-art CCTV facility where men and women in suits watch the streets of London live on vast telescreens.

Brown and his team control 160 cameras, covering locations across the borough: the West End, Belgravia, the Golden Jubilee Bridges, Trafalgar Square, Knightsbridge and the full length of Oxford Street. The cameras are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year - "Yep, even Christmas Day," says Brown.

The control centre is, bizarrely, registered as a charitable trust, and is funded by Westminster City Council, the Metropolitan Police and private businesses. Since becoming operational in 2002, the control room has recorded 24,000 "incidents", ranging from (in Brown's categories) "low-level" graffiti, fly-tipping and public urinating to "high-level" robbery, drug dealing and prostitution. It has also had 5,000 visitors from more than 30 countries whose governments or police forces are looking to adopt similar systems. Britain used to export textiles, iron, steel and pop music; now it exports Orwellian methods for monitoring the masses.

Brown pulls up a swivel-chair for me to sit on. "This touch-screen computer and this control stick allow me to access and control any one of our cameras," he says. He hits the blue button "Leicester Square" on the screen, and suddenly I have a perfect, bird's-eye view of the square and its strolling, love-struck couples and rushing pedestrians. He uses the control stick (exactly like the joysticks that came with Spectrum computers in the 1980s) to show that the camera can rotate 360 degrees sideways and 180 degrees up and down. It zooms in, too. I get a remarkable high-resolution close-up of a young man and woman in intimate conversation - students, perhaps, or young French tourists, maybe, she wearing a trendy red vest and he a white shirt. It feels wrong to be watching them from this underground bunker a few streets away.

"We look for signals, body language, anything out of the ordinary," says Brown. He pulls out a vast file marked Internal Tasking System, a manual for camera operators. It contains five or six photographs of each of the streets monitored by the 160 cameras. In every photo, there is a square red box. These are "areas of suspicion". So, in a snapshot of the entrance to the Chinawhite nightclub on Air Street (or "Air Street Camera Four", as Brown refers to it), there is a red box to indicate where vagrants sometimes sleep and another showing where ticket touts operate. There are hundreds of these photos, all laminated and neatly filed in folders. This is London reduced to an A to Z of suspicion, a collection of red-squared troubled spots where men, women and children must be monitored morning to night, every day of the year. My alarm must be apparent. "The way I see it, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about," says Brown.

"Nothing to hide" has become the byword of the flourishing surveillance industry. Britain is the world's capital when it comes to closed-circuit television.

You're on camera

Throughout the country are an estimated five million CCTV cameras; that's one for every 12 citizens. We have more than 20 per cent of the world's CCTV cameras, which, considering that Britain occupies a tiny 0.2 per cent of the world's inhab itable land mass, is quite an achievement. The average Londoner going about his or her business may be monitored by 300 CCTV cameras a day. Roughly 1,800 cameras watch over London's railway stations and another 6,000 permanently peer at commuters on the Underground and London buses. In other major city centres, including Manchester and Edinburgh, residents can expect to be sighted on between roughly 50 and 100 cameras a day.

Besides the official cameras - such as those operated by Westminster City Council from the Trocadero basement - ever-growing numbers of private companies, banks, building societies, schools, community halls, leisure centres and private residences are using CCTV.

And the cameras are getting cleverer all the time. As well as filming and recording our every move (Westminster, for example, stores all footage for 31 days), some cameras now come with automatic number-plate recognition, facial recognition and even suspicious behaviour recognition. In 2003, "smart" software called Intelligence Pedestrian Surveillance was introduced. This analyses clusters and movements of pixels in CCTV footage in search of "behavioural oddities".

British scientists, backed by the Ministry of Defence and a £500,000 government grant, are developing cameras with "gait recognition". These will recognise whether people are walking suspiciously or strangely, and alert a human operator. Think of it as the Ministry of Unfunny Walks.

This past month, Middlesbrough became the first town to launch speaking CCTV cameras, which bark orders if they capture anyone dropping a crisp packet, for example, or behaving antisocially. In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, what so tormented Winston Smith about the omnipresent telescreen was that not only did it watch, but it spoke.

How has this happened? How did Britain become, in the words of the Washington Post, "the world's premier surveillance society"? And why has there been so little protest about CCTV cameras? Britons, traditionally fierce in protecting their rights to be left alone by all authority, have been strangely co-operative in the face of an aggressive invasion of their privacy.

The Bulger effect

This acquiescence shocked European cinema-goers in May, when Andrea Arnold's Glasgow-based film Red Road was premièred. The film, which won the Prix du Jury at that month's Cannes Film Festival, tells the story of a CCTV operator coming face to face with the killer of her father.

CCTV in Britain spread rapidly during the 1990s, but had been around since the 1950s. In 1956, the police started to use cameras in one-man operations at traffic lights, in order to catch drivers running red lights. In 1960, the Metropolitan Police temporarily erected two cameras in Trafalgar Square to monitor the crowds during a public appearance by the Queen. By 1969, 14 police forces around the country were using CCTV, but there were still only 67 cameras in total. During the 1970s and 1980s, the retail sector started to become interested but, even as late as 1991, still only ten cities had open-street CCTV systems, and they were small-scale and locally funded. The turning point was the abduction and murder of James Bulger in 1993.

The infamous grainy CCTV image of the ten-year-olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables leading the trusting toddler by the hand from a Liverpool shopping centre was broadcast around the nation, and subsequently the world. Video-grabs featured on the front page of every British paper. Into the subsequent public anxiety, exacerbated by a national moral panic about youth crime, the then home secretary, Michael Howard, announced a "City Challenge Competition" to allocate £2m of government money for open-street CCTV systems. The Home Office was overwhelmed by 480 applications. Post-Bulger, CCTV came to be regarded as a guard against crime, even something of a comfort blanket.

"People see these cameras as a kind of benevolent father, rather than as Big Brother," says Peter Fry, director of the CCTV User Group, a 600-member association of organisations - from local councils to universities - that use CCTV cameras.

The explosive growth of these surveillance systems since 1993 has transformed city centres and local communities. For some people, says Fry, the cameras have a "psychological" benefit, giving some comfort in their belief that they are being watched and protected. In Shoreditch, London, there is even a "socially inclusive" CCTV initiative, known as Digital Bridge, which allows the residents themselves to tune in to "community TV" and watch what is happening outside their front doors.

"People know the cameras can be helpful for solving crimes and keeping people safe," says Fry.

But are people right to believe that cameras are keeping them safer? According to Martin Gill, professor of criminology at the University of Leicester, they are not. He conducted a study for the Home Office of 14 surveillance systems around the country and found that, in general, the installation of cameras has very little impact on crime. In only one of the 14 areas could a drop in crime levels be linked to CCTV.

"The study showed that you cannot have a technical solution to the problem of crime," says Gill. "A camera can monitor things, but it cannot intervene and take decisive action, like a bobby on the beat."

Perhaps part of the reason the British seem to have welcomed surveillance, or at least have treated the rise and rise of CCTV with nonchalance, is that Britain was already becoming an intensely voyeuristic society. Not only are we being watched, we also watch each other. On reality television, for example, we watch members of the public eating, sleeping and even having sex.

Voyeurism is OK

Young people seem particularly unbothered by the idea of watching and being watched. They "vid-blog" their daily lives and post them on YouTube for millions of people around the world to see. They post details about their loves and losses on MySpace. They film themselves and their friends doing silly (and sometimes criminal) things on videophones and then text and e-mail the mini-films to others. So why would they care about being filmed and watched by strangers while walking down the street?

"There is a lot of voyeurism in popular culture, from En demol's appalling Big Brother to even recent Peugeot car TV adverts that celebrate CCTV surveillance," says Mark of Spy Blog (www.spy.org. uk/spyblog).

Sky TV shows a wide range of programmes about drunk Britain, hooligan Britain, out-of-control Britain, all of which rely largely on CCTV foot age of crimes, bust-ups, fully fledged fights and drunken collapses. Last year, Raw Cut, a production company working on an eight-part series about crime for Sky, offered to pay members of the public £500 for clips of robberies, shop thefts, drive-offs and drunken behaviour. In some of the footage shown on such Sky programmes, the young Saturday-night street fighters seem almost to be performing for the CCTV cameras, looking at the lens or positioning themselves precisely.

With such little opposition to 24-hour surveillance in all major cities and towns, the few who are taking a stand can feel very lonely indeed.

Stuart Waiton is a youth worker in the East Pollokshields area of Glasgow. When local authorities announced their plans to install six new high-tech cameras on the council estate where he lives - "a pretty nice and pretty quiet estate" - Waiton decided to launch a protest. It was very much a one-man campaign.

"Mostly, because there is this fairly irrational fear of crime and antisocial behaviour, people accept the need for CCTV," he says. He distributed an anti-CCTV leaflet locally that got some nods of agreement, but nothing more. Waiton thinks the worst thing about the cameras is the pernicious impact they have on the fabric of community life. They become a constant third party in our everyday lives, he says, which means we are all less likely to take responsibility for solving local problems. "People start deferring to the cameras, assuming that someone else is watching and keeping guard, so the cameras actually disempower people from deciding for themselves how problems and issues should be resolved."

Back at the control centre beneath the Trocadero, I start to feel uncomfortable watching other people. These are my fellow citizens; they are workers, mums pushing buggies, street cleaners, students. Yet, on the numerous TV screens, they become transformed into pixels of suspicion, individuals whose faces, even gaits, must be monitored by camera operators hidden underground. In essence, they are no longer free individuals; they are objects of suspicion.

Under the tyrannical gaze of today's CCTV, none of us is really free. Instead, we live in a permanent state of parole, where we must walk, talk and act in a certain way, or risk having our collars felt by a cop or council official alerted by the spies behind the cameras. It is time we took some action against these peeping Toms of officialdom, and told them to switch off their spycams.

 

Surveillance by numbers
Research by Matt Kennard

20 per cent of all the world's CCTV cameras are in the UK

300 number of times a day the average Londoner is caught on CCTV

1 UK's position in the global league table for ratio of CCTV cameras to people

12 number of people per CCTV camera in Britain

0 percentage improvement in police detection rates of violent offences with CCTV