The Closed Circuit Television Revolution
Football Hooliganism is partly the cause for Britain’s current obsession with CCTV. In 1985 the violence related to football (perceived as an almost exclusive ‘British Disease’) reached a peak and 92 grounds received grants from the Football Association to install CCTV systems. A similar grant was given by the Football Association to the police to establish mobile CCTV units throughout Britain. It didn’t take very long before the police realised that there was great potential for gathering evidence and for social control, offering a significant increase in police powers.
In the decade that followed its introduction, CCTV has gained (quite understandably) support in the highest levels of government, John Major in 1994 addressed the Tory Party conference with his commitment to further funding the implementation of the technology. In 1996 Michael Howard boasted how Britain now ‘...rules the world in closed circuit technology.’ By March 1995 the government had handed out over £5 million for distribution to towns and cities having difficulty funding their own CCTV systems; added to this, is a further £14 million from the private sector in ‘partnership’ schemes. The reason for such a complete acceptance for CCTV in Britain seems fairly clear when considering the power of the belief that CCTV = Crime-free streets. CCTV is promoted as the ultimate crime prevention tool. It would appear that everyone will benefit; with the exception of criminals, hooligans and enemies of law and order. The image of the technology is so powerful that few people think beyond the immediate promise of the moment.
The statistics appear, at first glance, to be rewarding. In 1992, the year before Airdrie’s CCTV network was fully installed, 171 assaults were reported in the town centre - this dropped to 79 the following year. However, figures over the entire police district showed an increase of 140 during the same period. This highlights the first criticism of CCTV systems - that they serve moreover to displace crime rather than deter it altogether. There are now nationally in place insurance initiatives that reduce premiums for the retailers who submit to CCTV levy schemes. Clearly crime is being displaced from high-rent commercial districts (which also benefit from having CCTV systems funded in levies from rent and rates) to low-rent residential districts.
In Britain today, almost every city and major town possess a closed circuit television system. There is currently (07/1997) no legislation controlling the use of CCTV technology. Laws have been passed that, in fact, prevent local councils from blocking plans to install the systems. This happened in the case of Birmingham City council who, in 1993 suspended an application for a city-wide network because of concerns for how the images would be stored and used. In the absence of any additional legislation protecting privacy, the council felt that the scheme should not go ahead. Central Government felt differently and West Midlands Police got their city-wide network.
There has been no open debate on the increasing use of this technology; it isn’t considered under the data protection laws; there is no licensing, registration or guidelines. There are no independent agencies to overlook the activities of CCTV operators; the technology is free from any restraints.
The establishment itself is not without critics of the mushrooming growth in CCTV technology; Sir John Smith (Deputy Commissioner of Scotland Yard 1985 - 1995) made the statement that, “...the absence of privacy will be seen as a greater problem [in the future] than that of crime itself, certainly in this country.” Sir John’s comment is, however, something of a lone voice, when the Home Secretary assures us all that it is only the guilty that have anything to fear.
It is the Fear of crime rather than crime itself that invited the silent revolution of visual surveillance technologies in Britain. And it is this fear that has placed us in a situation where the routine daily video recording of our public movements and activities are in the hands of both state and private surveillance institutions. The dangers of this could be summed up in six points:-
- The Power of the State is Increased.
- The Technology can Falsely Accuse.
- Technology Dehumanises.
- CCTV Displaces Crime
- CCTV Breeds Mistrust
- Deregulated Technology can be Dangerous
Unlike many other European countries, notably those of the previous eastern block, Britain has no living memory of the horror of a highly developed authoritarian state. Our acceptance of these technologies is inviting both an increase in police powers of surveillance as well as a gradual removal of civil liberties.
CCTV images regarded as ‘evidence’ are loaded with visual signals which imply criminality simply on the style and context of their representation.
The extensive dependence on visual surveillance systems serves to put the police behind screens watching crime - rather than ‘on the streets’ dealing with it directly. The technology itself can only record crime.
Like other short-term ‘crackdown’ methods of controlling crime, CCTV can be seen to displace crime. The displacement is almost exclusively from affluent areas which have wired-up to poorer areas - reinforcing social inequalities.
The Revolution recognises that every member of our society is a potential criminal.
All advancing technologies should be scrutinised for their environmental, social, economic and political impact, especially when the technologies have military associations.