University of the West of England. BA Art & Social Context “Surveillance” by Richard Proffitt.
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Surveillance: Technologies: Part 1: Equipment

Contextualised Practice: Evaluation Report. Module: A842S3

by Richard Proffitt September 1997.
Updated in May-July 2015


  • Technological Advancement
  • Facial Recognition
  • Databases
  • Surveillance Equipment

    The truism that technology moves at an alarmingly fast rate is readily applied to the advancing science of surveillance. The quality of the images produced by today’s CCTV cameras are far removed from those seen in the James Bulger case for example. Within a typical system, the high definition cameras (often equipped with infraredInfrared cameras
    or thermal imaging camera is a device that forms an image using infrared radiation & can therefore create night-time images when visable light is low.Wikipedia
    capabilities) are able to zoom in to magnifications that call to mind the claims of the spy satellites’ strengths. Worryingly, it is not only the increased quality but sheer number of the cameras available. Placed at strategic locations allowing fields of vision to intersect, an entire web of cameras can follow ‘persons of interest’ often for miles. A system of operators can track a person’s movements, activities and contacts as long as they stay within reach of the cameras’ gaze. Should a break in the web need filling, a mobile CCTV unit can be used to fill it; Bournemouth police posses such a mobile unit, along with over 200 fixed cameras in there town’s surveillance web.

    For motorists the appearance of cameras with flash photography has become an established fact at many road crossings and intersections. The ability to track vehicles has now, however, moved into its second phase. Since 1994 the technology to scan number plates has been in place. In central London, number plates are routinely scanned on all cars entering the area. Within seconds, the system contacts the computers of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and police databases. This technology is currently being expanded to cover all of the motorway network. This gives the police increased power to trace any car, anywhere over the countries motorway network, thereby controlling the movement of particular people and groups.

    Facial Recognition

    Scanning Technology is also experiencing a leap in advancement. The Florida-based NeuroMetric company has developed a Facial Recognition (CFR) systemFacial Recognition System
    is a computer application for automatically identifying or verifying a person from a digital image or a video frame from a video source. Wikipedia
    , which, in 1995 could scan a crowd at the rate of 20 faces a second. It then digitises the information against a database of face prints. NeuroMetric now claims that the machine can scan a database of 50 million faces in less than a minute.

    In Britain, companies like British Telecom Laboratories are developing the same type of face recognition technology. Many new identity cards (drivers’ licenses etc.) are now being issued with digitised images. Such a move facilitates the creation of databases of ‘face prints’ - indeed, the government of Massachusetts has already developed a database containing the face prints of its 4.2 million registered drivers.

    Technological advancement is swift - new computers rapidly make older ones antiquated in what can be a matter of months. Surveillance technology is no exception - especially when much of the funding for this technology comes from the highest levels of government. Future advances are sure to make devices far more sophisticated and efficient - but it is in the merging of these technologies that holds the key to the next level in surveillance. For example: a rather insidious device known as ‘forward seeking infrared radar’ is currently in use by the FBI and Customs authorities. It’s a hand held object with the ability to scan through the walls of a building with the accuracy of an early video camera. If such a device were to be coupled with the CCTV networks already in pace, one doesn’t have to be paranoid to have grave concern for basic civil liberties. Another area of merging technology that should attract our awareness is the extended power of database and retrieval systems.


    There are countless records that are kept upon each and every one of us. It is the responsibility of the Data Protection RegistrarOutdated Term
    The term was dropped as of: Data Protection Act 1998. The post changed to Data Protection Commissioner and later, Information Commissioner. Wikipedia
    that these records are kept away from spying eyes. Every single day of our lives, a whole series of systems of information keep track of our every telephone call, business transaction, use of credit cards and ATM machines that we make. Every institution that we have passed through has records upon us - we are routinely video-taped and monitored; almost every aspect of our lives is electronically recorded. Should any organisation wish so (and with the correct technology) a dossier of our lives could be readily amassed. The type and amount of data that is held on individuals can be bewildering. The Data Protection Registrar outlined 83 categories which Scotland Yard keeps on its files. These include:

    support for pressure groups

    sexual life

    marital status

    political opinions

    party membership



    travel details

    social contacts


    mental health

    In the case of serious crime, Scotland Yard has access to databases from over a hundred sources. Obviously organisations in the more shadowy areas of Whitehall, MI5 for example, have little or no regard for privacy whilst gathering their information. The information industry has blossomed also as the government has seem fit to privatise much of the data control in this country. The American firm EDS, which is the largest company of its kind in the world, currently holds vast amounts of British data. EDS refuse to make known the type of information it holds and for whom; but they have revealed that some of its clients include: The DHS, Inland Revenue, Credit Card Companies and The Ministry of Defence.

    Other private businesses in the information industry are looking towards the Police as clients for their merging technology. Memex Research in Glasgow has produced a database called Textract and this has been pioneered by central police, Sterling. Textract is a system that the developers claim can accept and sort data from any alien database and computer language. Pyramid-like in structure, it branches connections from an individual to its own files and those of other computers’ databases. The Textract system not only interprets and sorts data from multiple sources, but presents the information in many formats. It holds not only text but video and audio surveillance recordings on its files - from CCTV images and tapped telephone conversations.

    When we reflect on why such technology is advancing at such a rapid pace, again we must came to the conclusion that it is the huge amount of money being provided for funding. The development of surveillance and social control machines do not simply depend on the movement of progress. ‘Developments occur when they serve the purpose of those who control the resources which can put the technology to use, rather than when the basic scientific knowledge becomes available’ [Acroyed, Rosenhead. ‘The Technology of Political Control’]

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