From the moment I step out of my front door in the morning to the moment I come home at night, around 300 surveillance cameras record my every move. When I get on the bus, five cameras monitor people on the inside, while several others film cars on the outside of the bus. In libraries, on street corners, in parks or stores, I am Constantly. Being. Watched.
A typical CCTV warning sign in Croydon, London. Signs like these are strewn around the city.
Image by le Korrigan – Flickr
This is the story of what it’s like to live in the UK today. London has the “greatest density of surveillance cameras on earth” (Luksch & Patel, 2008), a fact that one becomes used to at an alarming speed when one lives here. There are so many cameras in this city, their abundance becomes normalized. Strolling around on a Sunday afternoon, you almost forget about them, really.
“CCTV panopticon” by nicolasnova – Flickr
A CCTV camera hidden in the trees. Image by brr.kevin – Flickr
Video cameras greet drivers into central London. There are congestion charge cameras, CCTV and PNC cameras.
Image by ahxcjb – Flickr
CCTV on Parliament square, Big Ben in the background.
by stephenjjohnson – Flickr
Yet at the same time, they’re kind of impossible to forget. They are a constant background presence, an omnipotent eye that follows you around. With it you carry the understanding that there are hours of tapes of you somewhere (that you can actually request to see – images of yourself at given places, at given times). When you stop to think about it, it’s spine chilling really. It always makes me feel slightly more on edge here than in any other city, as if everything I’m doing is criminal.
A CCTV car equipped with a camera on top of a mast to spot traffic offenses.
Image by adamlarge – Flickr
When I first moved here, I asked a lot of people how they felt about the cameras. Many replied that they didn’t mind them. A lot of the women I asked said they felt safer with them walking home at night. Most said they didn’t even notice them anymore.
There is a long history of surveillance in the UK. Cameras have been set up in the capital since the late 1960s and the trend took over Britain in the 1990s. Today, this is the leading country in surveillance technology, and many countries are taking the British system on board – Italy, Canada, Brazil, the city of NYC, to name a few.
The exact number of CCTV cameras in this country isn’t actually known. The common figure used (from a few years ago now) is 4.2 million, which represents one camera for every 14 people. While their primary purpose is to catch and deter criminal activity, their effectiveness in both these regards is highly contested. There is in fact weak evidence to show that CCTV cameras reduce crime. At the same time, some studies have shown that they do increase the level of fear of crime within citizens. And this knowledge seems to be used to the police’s advantage.
On protests for example, footage taken from CCTV cameras is used to identify people and “target” them for increased police surveillance or a stop and search. They’re also used to gain intelligence on people who may have come to more than one protest, even if they haven’t committed an offense. I’ll never forget coming home from a peaceful protest with students, I turned on the news that night and saw a series of pictures of young students smiling, chanting with painted faces, with the words flashing on the screen “Do you know this person? If so, please contact the police”.
The presence of these cameras has effectively made demonstrations a criminal activity. Our rights to peacefully assemble, to free speech and anonymity are effectively violated. And in a sense, these cameras have created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether it be about a protest or not, their mere presence justifies that people are doing something wrong, otherwise we wouldn’t have cameras in the ciy in the first place.
Banksy made this mural in London while being filmed by a CCTV camera. It has since been painted over.
Image by TV Boy – Flickr
This system transforms ordinary citizens into criminals, breeds mistrust among people, violates some of our most basic rights and fundamentally blurs the line between the public and private. In the post-9/11 world, security and surveillance seem to take precedence over everything and seem to be justifications to do anything.
A film was recently made called Faceless, entirely made up of CCTV images. You can read more about it here.
Here is also a video of the Surveillance Camera Players, a group formed in New York City in 1996 who saw the issue coming in the 1990s. Check out their approach to the rise of surveillance cameras in the city.