According to George Orwell’s dystopian depiction of future Britain, government surveillance and spying tactics were predicted to become salient features of the twenty first century. Although the government claims that the recent surge of CCTV cameras are a deterrent to potential acts of criminality, it is interesting to note that there is a statistical lack of effectiveness when dealing with actual crime. Therefore, it is pertinent to question whether these cameras have had a positive impact on British society. Is an increase in CCTV cameras the way forward for policing? The Home Office certainly seems to think so. Its spending on cameras has swelled in recent years. CCTV is now the ‘biggest drain on the Home office’, accounting for three quarters of their crime prevention budget.
Given the massive cash injections into these surveillance initiatives, how effective are CCTV cameras in detecting and resolving crime? The Freedom of Information Act released figures that highlighted a ‘71% fall in the number of crimes in which CCTV was involved in the Metropolitan area.’ A separate Met office report revealed that for every 1000 cameras in London, less than 1 crime is solved per year. With over four million cameras in the United Kingdom, 2 million of which are focused on London, the government trend towards further surveillance raises cause for concern amongst certain officials. Lib Dem David Howorth recognizes that ‘there is now a growing amount of evidence to suggest that the impact of CCTV on crime is minimal.’ At the same time, Alexander Deane, director of the campaign Big Brother Watch asserts that ‘it’s right to say that the experiment with CCTV has failed.’
With this in mind, it is shocking that Britain continues to have more cameras per head than any other country in the entire world. But, the government’s pervasive measures don’t stop there. Oxford City Council recently announced its plans to fit all of its 652 taxis with at least 1 CCTV camera to record conversations between passengers. Perhaps the fact that we get caught on camera at an estimated 300 times a day has not yet sounded alarm bells, but this new measure to record private conversations is surely a wake-up call. This particular council plan has been accused of a ‘staggering invasion of privacy, being done with no evidence, no consultation and a total disregard for civil liberties.’ One spokeswoman responded, ‘Oxford City Council considers that so long as clear notices are provided in vehicles which inform passengers that video and audio recording may be taking place, the risk of intrusion is acceptable compared to public safety benefits. In any event, the level of privacy reasonably to be expected in a licensed vehicle is far lower than that expected in the privacy of one’s home or own car.’ When did it become permissible for officials to decide which personal intrusions are acceptable? This measure encroaches upon civil liberties and demonstrates a complete disregard for privacy.
It is possible that the trend towards a ‘snooping’, surveillance society is a reflection of the advanced technological world we inhabit. After all, Facebook is just one of many examples that people are becoming more seemingly interested in the intricacies of each other’s lives. However, when it comes to policing, it is arguably best left to more conventional methods that do not spill over into our private lives. Instead of massive funding into more CCTV cameras, perhaps the government could afford better street lighting or neighbourhood crime prevention initiatives.