A UK surveillance company is planning to launch an online CCTV watching website that could herald the privatisation of the surveillance state. 'Internet Eyes' will ask volunteers to watch random CCTV feeds of UK businesses subscribed to the service with the promise of cash rewards for viewers that spot the most crimes. This is a private company asking private individuals to spy on each other using private CCTV cameras.
The company behind the scheme is trying to capitalise on the scale of UK surveillance, the expense to the taxpayer and the ineffectiveness of cameras as a crime fighting tool by stating that: "There are 4.2 million cameras in the UK", that: "So far the British Government has spent £20 billion pounds on CCTV" and then stating that: "At least 90% of them are not being manned at any given time." The solution they claim is to get unpaid members of the public to watch the cameras and this will equate to "Increased crime detection = Greater deterrent = Reduction in stock loss".
What they have done here is mix up several issues and offer a solution that has nothing to do with any of them.
The 4.2 million cameras figure is an estimate of the total number of CCTV in the UK - those run by local authorities/police and those owned and run by private companies. The public money wasted on CCTV was spent on the local authority/police cameras. The vast majority of these cameras are constantly monitored by operators in police CCTV control rooms. It is these cameras that have been assessed for their effectiveness and been shown to "not have a significant effect on crime" (See Campbell Collaboration into the 'Effects of Closed Circuit Television Surveillance on Crime' and others).
Much CCTV in small shops, businesses and schools is not constantly monitored. But why would asking untrained members of the public to watch this footage produce results any better than the poor results obtained by trained CCTV operators in police control rooms?
To bridge the gap between private and public surveillance cameras Internet Eyes has used a recent Metropolitan Police report on 'Operation Javelin' that we recently reported on (see 'Project Javelin - the future of CCTV?'). This report also blurred the division between public and private camera operation when it made reference to an estimated one million cameras in London when there are somewhere closer to 10,524 cameras run by local authorities and therefore under police control across the 32 London boroughs (according to figures released in 2007).
In the UK we are already the most spied upon population in the world but the police and now a private company are trying to exploit the failure of CCTV technology to ramp up the levels of surveillance yet further. An incredible response to an extremely costly failed project - costly in terms of both finance and freedoms.
The situation in the UK was summed up neatly by a comment posted on the Evening Standard Website following a report in 2007 that despite there being over 10,000 local authority cameras in London costing £200 million the crime clear up rates were poor. Gregg Scott of New York, United States wrote:
I'm not the smartest fellow on the planet but it would appear your country has traded liberty for security and lost both. Good luck to all of you - I pray that the few liberty loving people left will restart the engine of growth and liberty that my history books tell me England once was.
The company behind Internet Eyes believes that the way to improve life in the UK is for people to sit at home staring at a computer screen watching other people to see if they are committing a crime rather than going out onto the streets, getting to know and interacting with real people and maybe rebuilding communities. They claim that shopkeepers can reduce shoplifting by allowing internet voyeurs to spy on their customers when a far simpler way of dealing with someone you suspect may be shoplifting is to engage with that person, ask them if you can help them find what they need in a polite and friendly way - if they are a shoplifter they will leave, if they are not they will enjoy some personal attention. Of course Internet Eyes is a commercial venture and encouraging people to interact with each other isn't so good for the bottom line.
The concept of volunteers watching cameras is being presented as a new idea but even this isn't true. Several cash strapped councils around the country have started asking for volunteers to man their CCTV control rooms including Shoreditch, Cirencester, Dorset, Sudbury, Wick and there has even been another private company operating a volunteer camera system in Great Yarmouth since 2007. The difference here is that the cameras are private and the images are streamed over the internet.
When it comes to CCTV there are few legal protections. The main one is the Data Protection Act which has spawned a Code of Practice containing guidelines for retention of CCTV images. The code states: "You should not keep images for longer than strictly necessary to meet your own purposes for recording them". Most local authorities have a retention period of 30 days. How will Internet Eyes comply with even these limited protections when internet viewers can take a screen grab and store images on their computer indefinitely or distribute them as they see fit?
Indeed the Information Commissioners Office (ICO), the body that has limited powers to enforce the Data Protection Act has expressed some concern about this new venture. The ICO says:
it would not be appropriate to disclose images of identifiable individuals to the media for entertainment purposes or place them on the internet.
It may well be that Internet Eye's lawyers find a way around the Data Protection Act and the Information Commissioners Office backs down as they did with Google Stret View. Sadly it may take some serious abuse of the system for there to be a legal challenge.
There has been much blog coverage of Internet Eyes including: Notes from the ubiquitous surveillance society which looks at the end of Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) and the emergence of Open-Circuit Television (OCTV) surveillance, and Application Security which explains that the website for citizens spies "is insecure itself" as the registration pages do not use encryption (SSL).
Internet Eyes is a worrying and disturbing addition to the surveillance industrial complex and yet another reason why we need an urgent debate about the sort of society we are creating before it is too late.