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Britain's Big Brother: As surveillance grows, so does concern about privacy in the closely watched nation

Houston Chronicle | April 12 2004

LONDON -- Day after day, and sometimes late into the night, Felix Codrington watches the people of Wandsworth.

The 48-year-old is one of three local government officials charged with monitoring the 567 cameras that scan the streets and other public areas of the London borough.

Sitting on a swivel chair in a dimly lit room, Codrington scrutinizes the rows of screens on the wall in front of him, looking for suspicious behavior. A couple of youths loiter near an ATM, and he zooms in. When they move on, he turns his attention to another screen, where shoppers are browsing in a street market.

"We don't miss much," says Codrington, twiddling the joystick on his desk. "We've got cameras all over the place now."

The same goes for the rest of Britain. Over the last three years, the number of closed-circuit television cameras here has quadrupled to more than 4 million, making this the most watched country in the world, experts say.

Many Britons now go about their daily lives like contestants in a reality-TV show, with cameras tracking their every move on residential and commercial streets, on buses, trains and subways, in offices, pubs and malls, even in churches and schools.

Experts calculate that the average commuter in London is filmed 300 times a day.

Yet despite strong support for closed-circuit television, commonly called CCTV, as a crime-fighting tool, concerns are mounting that Britain is taking surveillance too far. With some observers predicting the country will have more surveillance cameras than people within a decade, civil liberty groups foresee a bleak, Orwellian future, where privacy is a thing of the past.

"At this rate, we will soon be strapping a camera on everyone's shoulder," says Mark Littlewood, campaign director for Liberty, a London-based human rights group.

Britain has certainly gone farther down the Big Brother route than any other country, according to Urban Eye, a research project comparing surveillance regimes in Europe.

In Berlin, as in Canada, for instance, the British practice of filming people in the streets is illegal.

The rest of Germany has tough laws restricting the use of CCTV cameras in public places.

Other European countries use surveillance cameras chiefly to monitor traffic and transport systems or to protect sites that might be targeted by terrorists or criminals.

In the United States, most CCTV cameras watch over traffic or private premises, such as banks, stores, offices and homes, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Since 9/11, however, authorities have increased surveillance of public areas, particularly in Washington and New York City.

Nevertheless, experts say, American use of CCTV still lags far behind that of Britain, which has poured more than $500 million of public money into the cameras since 1990.

Here, both private and public places are routinely filmed by police and other local officials as well as private businesses and homeowners.

In theory, surveillance has its limits.

A 1998 British law established a person's right to know when he or she is being filmed and to view the footage. Still, studies suggest that the rules are often ignored. Critics claim that up to 80 percent of surveillance cameras are hidden from view or inadequately sign-posted.

Why are the British so willing to be watched? Some academics blame the country's lack of a written constitution for creating a culture in which citizens are less aware of their rights.

Others point to a single murder case that rocked the nation in the early 1990s.

Even today, Britons are haunted by the fuzzy CCTV footage of two 11-year-olds leading toddler Jamie Bulger out of a shopping center in Liverpool. The 2-year-old's mutilated corpse was found days later. Without the CCTV footage, experts say, the police would have searched for an adult culprit and might never have caught the juvenile killers.

"The Bulger case helped establish CCTV as a benevolent crime-fighting tool in (British) minds," says David Morgan, a social policy researcher at the University of London. "When you ask people how to make their neighborhoods safer, having more cameras is always near the top of the list."

Experts say surveillance cameras have helped cut crime in multistory parking structures and have helped police make arrests. Surveillance footage has served as evidence in court.

Most research suggests, however, that CCTV has less impact on overall crime rates than its supporters claim. A British government study in the late 1990s concluded that better street lighting was four times more effective.

"The jury is still out on CCTV," says Clive Norris, deputy director of the Sheffield University Centre for Criminological Research and a member of the Urban Eye project. "When you look at the cost of installing and operating cameras, there may be better ways to spend our (crime-fighting) money."

Whatever its effect on criminals, critics warn that CCTV poses a threat to the innocent. Tapes from surveillance cameras, which are usually kept for a month before being erased, often find their way into the wrong hands. Clips of people driving badly or behaving foolishly are a staple on British TV. Footage of a man trying to commit suicide was broadcast without his consent.

The invasion of privacy sometimes ruins lives. In Manchester, a TV show broadcast a CCTV still of a man accused of using a stolen bank card. It later turned out that the camera operator had submitted the wrong photo, but the apology came too late. The man lost his job and eventually suffered a nervous breakdown.

Under British law, citizens have a right to seek redress in the courts when their privacy is violated, but, in practice, experts say, few do so. "It comes back to the lack of cultural awareness of the right to privacy," Littlewood says.

Studies have also shown that CCTV operators are not always as benign as the public might hope. Stores have used surveillance technology to analyze customers' buying habits or to remove teenage boys and other "undesirables" from the premises, even if they had done nothing wrong.

Some operators have targeted ethnic minorities, researchers say. Others have spent a disproportionate amount of time tracking attractive, young women.

At the Wandsworth control center, the potential for abuse is plain to see. Some of the cameras can pan across windows and peer into private apartments. The only protection residents have from snooping is a promise from the Wandsworth council that its operators will never focus on homes.

As cameras become smaller and cheaper, though, spying is seeping into every corner of British life. News reports have featured parents monitoring their nannies and neighbors peering into each other's gardens. Schools film students in classrooms, restrooms and on playgrounds. Civil liberties groups warn that when everyone is watching everyone else, trust breaks down.

Despite the pitfalls of blanket surveillance, though, industry analysts predict that the number of CCTV cameras in Britain will soar to 25 million by 2007. The Wandsworth council plans to install at least 30 more this year.

In the CCTV control room, the staff has little time for the critics.

"I don't see a problem with the cameras," Codrington says. "If you're not breaking the law, then you have nothing to hide, right?"

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