On Monday night BBC1's 'Inside Out' programme threw away the broadcasting rule book and transmitted an advert on peak-time television for the Internet Eyes CCTV game. The advert was implanted in the magazine programme disguised as an item about surveillance cameras in London.
Inside Out's premise was that CCTV in London isn't working but that the UK business Internet Eyes Ltd has the solution - their internet game (with cash prizes). The programme then explained how Internet Eyes will work and how this will "revolutionise CCTV in the capital" by likening it to a border patrol citizen spy system in Texas, USA.
The views of the commercial venture Internet Eyes Ltd got the vast majority of air time whilst the views of unpaid anti CCTV campaigners received just 12 seconds - so much for the BBC's responsibility as a public service broadcaster to present both sides of the argument and not to take sides. (Section 44 of the BBC's agreement states: "The BBC must do all it can to ensure that controversial subjects are treated with due accuracy and impartiality in all relevant output").
The BBC may claim that they did balance the argument as they did demonstrate the failings of CCTV - that is to say the selective failings on which Internet Eyes Ltd base their marketing! A few examples of claims made on the Internet Eyes website are: "all too often criminals get away with crime because although their activity is monitored by CCTV it is not observed at the time of the offence", "only one in 1,000 crime solved using CCTV", "CCTV cameras a waste of time no-one is watching". These same claims were presented by the BBC to promote the CCTV game as a solution.
In the programme the BBC follows one of Internet Eye's founders as he visits a newsagent in East London beset with problems of violence and racial abuse in his shop. The shop is fitted with private CCTV cameras but the incidents have continued - despite the CCTV.
The shopkeeper and his wife tell the programme that the police were not interested in viewing their CCTV footage or dealing with what the police considered minor incidents. Clearly this highlights problems with policing in their area. Mr Internet Eyes however wants to sell these poor people his service - allowing internet viewers to watch their shop and press a button when they see an incident. What the programme did not address is this very simple point - how will that help? If the newsagent is being attacked and an internet viewer sees it, then Internet Eyes will send an alert to the owner of that live camera feed, namely the newsagent - so basically as the newsagent is being attacked he will receive a text message telling him that he is being attacked! Then it is business as usual - the newsagent will contact the police who will decide if they want to investigate the matter. Hardly a revolution in crime reduction. Meanwhile the attack could easily find its way onto youtube for internet voyeurs the world over to watch the suffering of this poor couple as entertainment. How could the nonsense of this be missed by Inside Out? It would appear Mr Internet Eyes knew this all along as he tells the newsagent:
If you are in a situation where somebody comes in with maybe a gun or a machete like you've had - somebody on the screen will see this happening so ... you know, you can feel that at least somebody is doing something to help you.
Comparisons to US virtual border patrol
Perhaps the most stunning piece of misinformation was when the BBC looked at a virtual border patrol system in the US to show how a "similar scheme is already working". The virtual border patrol is part of 'Operation Border Star' and in March the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a report ('Operation Border Star: Wasted Millions and Missed Opportunities') which stated:
The virtual border surveillance program operates 13 cameras at this time and a publicly accessible website. Over the first six months of operation, only three arrests were made as a result of $2 million worth of technology.
The ACLU report goes on to point out:
Texas has spent federal grant dollars on technological experiments that have completely failed. The virtual border surveillance program has failed to meet any of the state's stated goals for the program, and according to federal law enforcement, may actually help the cartels avoid detection.
The virtual border patrol system has been highly controversial. In July a report on the 'Homeland Security News Wire' website, called 'Virtual border system ineffective, out of cash', documents the long list of problems and criticisms and reveals that: "in its first full year of operation failed to meet nearly every law enforcement goal."
Of course none of this is mentioned in the programme - which is keen to show us how clever they think the US system is. At one point the presenter tells us he has logged on to the Texas Virtual Border Watch website. Next we see him watching a video and he tells us: "There's a family here in a raft and it's amazing to think that by clicking a link here in London I can have border patrol go out and stop them". It really would be amazing - because the footage on the screen is from the BorderWatch Archives section of their website and is at least several months old (see cached version of the page from October 2009: http://tinyurl.com/cachedvideo-oct-2009).
Here in the UK, Internet Eyes is controversial even before it is launched. Last month No CCTV and Privacy International lodged a joint complaint with the Information Commissioners Office and a Stop Internet Eyes Facebook group has been set up. It is our hope that the Information Commissioner will see that Internet Eyes is a dangerous threat to privacy, breaches the Data Protection Act and should not be allowed to launch in the UK. The BBC did not mention this either.
The programme takes the view that CCTV doesn't work because nobody is watching the cameras, the film quality is too low and the cameras are not properly maintained. No mention of the fact that it doesn't work full stop, as evidenced by multiple substantive studies. One could be forgiven for thinking that the programme's researchers did no research whatsoever, given that they made no reference to any of the substantial published research on CCTV freely available to all who care to read it. No mention either, by the way, of the claimed trade-offs of freedoms for security, whereby in reality both are lost.
The fair and balanced BBC finished their report with more CCTV footage of an incident in the East London newsagent's and the tag line "But for the Kumars faced with this - a Big Brother that could protect couldn't come a moment too soon..". For those apparently all too few of us who care about freedom, the end of this programme couldn't come a moment too soon.
Inside Out can be viewed on BBC iplayer at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00pdz89/Inside_Out_London_07_12_2009/ in the UK until Monday 14th December.
BBC programme complaints can be lodged at http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints