Privacy Law and Policy Reporter
In mid-March 1995, Fairfield City Council in Sydney's west announced plans to install on-the-street surveillance cameras in the business district of the crime-ridden suburb of Cabramatta. It is the first installation of its kind in Australia, but is likely to be the first of many such surveillance systems. The cameras are intended to address a major drug problem, as well as vandalism and assaults. At the same time, the NSW police service is trialing surveillance cameras in the cinema district of Sydney, while in NZ the Privacy Commissioner recently drafted a Code of Conduct covering overt visual surveillance in public places. The country which has probably led
the world in its uptake of visual surveillance technology is the UK. Simon Davies writes on the background for its rapid adoption in the UK alongside other initiatives which impact on privacy rights.
These days it is hard to imagine a time when the British public was passionately concerned about information privacy, but such was the situation in 1970. For 15 years, the breathtaking growth of computer technology had fuelled public anxiety over the emergence of a Big Brother state. Huge databanks of personal information were being constructed, and many people genuinely feared that they would merge into a central databank. Backbenchers in Parliament responded by introducing a variety of troublesome privacy Bills, all of which the government was keen to derail. So, in 1970, it established a committee to investigate the subject of privacy.
One of the first tasks of the committee was to conduct an opinion poll. The result was a surprise to everyone. Of all the concerns - nuclear war, economic depression or communist infiltration - none was greater than the fear that the government might construct a central computer databank. In 1970, George Orwell's vision was a nightmare still waiting to happen.
But a generation later, it seems almost everyone here agrees that Orwell got it wrong. In the view of many people, computer technology hasn't turned out so bad after all. Information is more freely and readily available. Communication is cheap and reliable. The world - in every sense - is at our fingertips. We have absorbed computer technology as voraciously as we absorbed the technology of the motor car.
The result of this change of heart is clear for everyone to see. Britain in the 1990s has become a surveillance state. Privacy protection is scarce, data protection law is weak, and intrusive technology is exploited in an environment of hostility to privacy. Leading silk Geoffrey Robertson QC argues that Britain fails to protect privacy more than any other western nation.
The need for meaningful protection becomes more pressing each day. The Government has recently introduced the Criminal Justice Bill, establishing a national DNA database, limiting the right of freedom of movement and assembly, and significantly expanding police powers. A government green paper on a national identity card will be published in April, and data-matching programs are already under way among government agencies. Neither of these initiatives are contentious here. Meanwhile, in telecommunications, Caller ID has been introduced with scarcely a murmur from civil liberties or consumer groups.
This disregard for privacy extends throughout the British administration. For example, every television in the nation must be registered. The system is enforced by a television licensing authority that requires all television dealers to notify the details of purchasers and requires all post offices to notify changes of address. More astounding is the fact that television licence inspectors have the power to obtain and execute search warrants of private houses. Up to 3,000 warrants are issued each year, yet the public accepts this heavy-handed and archaic conduct with little reaction.
Perhaps the most blatant symbol of the erosion of British privacy is the logarithmic expansion of Closed Circuit Video Television (CCTV) schemes. Surveillance cameras keep a watch over countless public places throughout the UK. Festoons of them hang above the London Underground and throughout prestige areas of the city. They are concealed above doorways, inside vending machines, and behind two-way mirrors. They are being installed in automatic teller machines, inside buses, and on rooftops. Each week, more of these cameras are being installed at intersections, on top of police cars, alongside motorways, and in areas of high crime. The latest system operating on the M1 motorway even displays your car's details - and your offence - on a giant neon sign for all the world to see. Known as the Speed Violation Detection Deterrent, the device not only publicly displays the driver's offence, but it also sends a comprehensive visual record to the local police headquarters.
In late 20th century Britain, people expect to be routinely videotaped during the course of their daily business. CCTV has become a key plank in crime control, traffic control and crowd control. It is also a major tool for workplace surveillance, both of employees and customers.
According to the Home Office, around 95 per cent of cities and towns in Britain are now considering the establishment of CCTV systems. Eighty cities already have established centrally-controlled systems. Such cities as Blackpool, Swansea, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Hull, Torquay, Wolverhampton, Chester, Bath and Brighton have installed sophisticated surveillance systems over main public areas. The seaside resort of Bournemouth has installed 103 cameras since 1985, some of which are located on the cliff walks leading to the local beach. These cameras have infra-red capacity, allowing night time surveillance.
This activity has been a goldmine for security companies. The British Security Industry Association (BSIA) says the market for surveillance camera systems has doubled since 1989 and now accounts for an annual spending of around £170 million. Other estimates put the figure at more than £300 million.
According to BSIA, there are upwards of 150,000 professionally-installed camera systems already in place, and this number increases by 500 each week.
The video surveillance boom is even likely to extend inside the home. Andrew May, Assistant Chief Constable of South Wales, has urged victims of domestic violence to conceal video cameras in their homes to collect evidence. Michael Jack, Minister for State at the Home Office was reported as responding that the idea brought a 'freshness of approach' which highlighted the role of new technology.
A 1992 Home Office report on video surveillance entitled 'Closed Circuit Television in Public Places' highlighted a general lack of concern about surveillance. Between 80 and 90 per cent of the respondents to the Home Office survey 'welcomed' the introduction of surveillance cameras. Most people believed that cameras resulted in a reduction in crime.
Among the supportive responses, however, was a thread of caution. Thirty-six per cent of those surveyed did not agree with the proposition 'the more of these cameras we have the better'. This minority raised a number of concerns about where the line should be drawn at surveillance. They also expressed concern about possible abuse of surveillance systems, the risk of erosion of civil liberties, and the uncomfortable feeling of being watched.
These isolated complaints excepted, the Government most certainly believes that the public is happy about video surveillance. Home Office Minister, David McLean, bluntly told the Guardian newspaper the public want more cameras and less crime.
Now, the Home Office plans to harmonise many of these camera systems, and the Association of Chief Police Officers supports the establishment of a video liaison officer in each town to ensure that all camera systems are co-ordinated.
One aspect of the massive growth in surveillance systems which has been largely ignored is the role of security industry suppliers. Security companies play on the 'feel-good' factor. One company promotes its CCTV system with the assurance that it provides that warm feeling of someone to watch over you. Infra-red has become very popular in recent years. Sanyo promotes its high resolution IR Spy cameras by promising that because of the unique design, people remain unaware that they are being monitored. This is ideal for monitoring in boutiques, restaurants, banks, jewellery shops, convenience stores, kindergartens and similar places. High sensitivity cameras can operate in light levels as low as 0.4 of a lux, bringing night scenes up to a resolution comparable to daylight.
Visual surveillance is a critical issue for individual freedom in that it has the potential to desensitise the population to other, less visible, forms of surveillance. The ready acceptance of video surveillance might be indicative of peoples' acceptance of the creed that if you have 'nothing to hide, (you have) nothing to fear'. And a nation which happily accepts visual surveillance without debate, may easily and happily accept a range of other forms of surveillance, from wire tapping to identity cards.
A widespread desensitisation of people towards intrusive technologies appears to be taking hold. It is rare for media in Britain to report on privacy violations, partly because media organisations view privacy protection as a direct threat to freedom of the press. The connection between State surveillance and privacy is not viewed as being different in nature. Perhaps the problem is semantic. It has been argued time and time again by some privacy advocates that the term 'privacy' can be counter-productive, and that the crucial issues are the implications of surveillance on freedom.
The dangers of CCTV are most obvious in those places where it has been in place for a long period of time. Since 1987, the quiet Norfolk town of Kings Lynn (population 30,000) has seen the construction of an impressive CCTV surveillance system, involving 60 remote-controlled cameras linked to a central command. The system is being constantly expanded, and it is likely by 1998 to comprise 120 state-of-the-art cameras located throughout Kings Lynn and surrounding towns.
The expansion is being driven by the local council, a body which is immensely proud of its conservative heritage, and its 'ear for the voice of the people'. Behind the initiative is a tiny group of middle ranking bureaucrats who saw the promise of CCTV some years ago, and went about promoting it widely. To give the technology added weight and appeal, it was promoted as a 'partnership' deal. The partners include police, local businesses and the citizens of Kings Lynn - everyone, really, except criminals, hooligans, louts, and the enemies of law and order.
The project began with seven cameras in the local burglary-plagued industrial park. It was a well co-ordinated and well-financed partnership between business, police and council and it succeeded in dramatically reducing burglary and vandalism. Indeed, so successful was the scheme that other partners and other schemes soon emerged throughout the town. Five years later, the system has expanded to 32 cameras to stop crime in parking lots. Then it burgeoned further to include the housing estate; then the sports complex; then, the city centre. At first, in an effort to protect privacy, only stationary cameras were installed near residential areas, but within three years these were replaced by cameras that could be remotely controlled. Now the city has plans to 'surveill' the hospital, the remaining housing estates, and the surrounding towns. It seems nothing can stop this surveillance juggernaut.
The Kings Lynn system currently provides only black and white images, but this shortcoming is more than compensated by the sophistication of the technology, which includes night vision, computer-assisted operation, and a motion detection facility which allows the operator to instruct the system to go on red alert when anything moves in view of the cameras.
The clarity of the pictures is brilliant. No more of the fuzzy grey images which confounded police time and time again in such cases as the James Bolger murder and the Bishopsgate IRA bombing which devastated the financial district of London. These cameras can read a cigarette packet at a hundred metres. They can zoom up to reveal the minutest detail of a face, licence plate, or even the contents of a paper bag. You want to know what that boy is packing into that slim white cigarette paper? CCTV promises to make it possible.
The justification for this remarkable piece of work is puzzling. Kings Lynn never had a particularly serious law and order problem - particularly in comparison to elsewhere in Britain. With a negligible level of street muggings, rapes and murders, it was hardly the crime capital of Norfolk.
'What it comes down to is, there's a perception of crime, a fear of crime, rather than actual crime,' conceded council official Barry Loftus, the Kings Lynn surveillance project director and founder. According to Mr Loftus, the surveillance system has grown because of the 'feel-good' factor it creates among the public. Originally installed to deter burglary, assault and car theft, in practice the cameras have been used to combat what town officials call 'anti-social behaviour,' including many such minor offences as littering, urinating in public, traffic violations, fighting, obstruction, drunkenness, and evading meters in town parking lots. They have also been widely used to intervene in other undesirable behaviour such as underage smoking and a variety of public order transgressions.
At a political level, there is little interest in the ramifications of this trend. Technology and the gathering of information is not a hot button on anyone's console. Britain continues to oppose efforts to pass a European Directive on Data Protection, mainly because this initiative would force a significant revision of the UK Data Protection Act. While the current Act is in force, and while the Data Protection Registrar continues to play a timid and reactive role, privacy in Britain will continue to diminish.
Simon Davies is a visiting Fellow of Law at the Universities of Essex and Greenwich in the UK, and is Director-General of Privacy International.