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L'Express article - London: In the Kingdom of Big Brother - 12/12/2008

[The following is a translation of an article that appeared in French magazine L'Express 10th September 2008 entitled 'Londres Au royaume de Big Brother'.]

In the British capital surveillance cameras check everything: streets, cars, public transport, shopping malls... The inhabitants want more, even though some parliamentarians and NGO's are worried about their effects on privacy.

Graffiti fills one whole panel of the wall two steps away from Oxford Circus in the heart of London. In four words written in white paint it summarises a British peculiarity: "One nation under CCTV", a cynical reference to the American oath of allegiance to the American flag which proclaims the USA as "one nation under God". Under the fresco, passers by observe a drawing of a security guard with his dog and a small boy with a red hood on top of a ladder, paint roller in hand. The author of this picture, the artist Banksy, painted it under cover of night in April 2008, without being caught by the camera half way up the picture.

To avoid the electronic eye is quite an achievement in the British capital. Everywhere they follow the pedestrian, they spy on the stroller, they watch the driver. Everywhere notices announce the existence of CCTV: in the Tube, on the double decker buses, in the streets, at the stations, in the hospitals, in the housing estates; in front of pubs, night clubs, offices, factories. The police even sport mini-cameras on their helmets! All together Britain has 4.2 million cameras, one for every four inhabitants.

"In London, it is estimated that on average, an individual may be recorded by over 300 different cameras in any given day", according to the official 'National CCTV Strategy' published in October 2007 by the Home Office

Too much, this is too much, suggests Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, responsible for controlling the use of personal data. Beware of the risk of "slow social suicide" if the country persists in abusing civil liberties he warned in April 2007. He had in mind especially national databases and the notorious CCTV cameras. This message has been welcomed by the members of the home affairs committee. Last June a report was published entitled "a surveillance society?". The MPs, who could have omitted the question mark, warned the authorities: "We asked the Government to weigh the risks associated with excessive surveillance. The threats to privacy erode the trust that links the individual with the government and risk changing the nature of the relationship between the individual and the state." Less diplomatically the NGO Privacy International has named England as the 2007 European Kingdom of Big Brother, referring to the famous novel by George Orwell "1984". Paradoxically, the English are not worried. One only has to walk through London to realise that.

Arrival of Eurostar

Passengers coming from France or Belgium disembark under the camera lens. The director of London continental railways has not skimped where security is concerned. Behind a huge screen, 450 cameras are filming 24 hours a day all the arrivals and departures on the platforms, on the escalators, in the shopping area and queuing for taxis. The main hall for trains to Brighton, Bedford, Sutton and Gatwick and Luton airports has been particularly spoilt with 28 cameras fixed to the ceiling.

It is useless trying to escape in the underground: King's Cross/St. Pancras station has 270 digital cameras. "We will have 500 when the station enlargement is completed in 2009", Peter Saunders, head of security, confirms. In the control room, scenes of platforms and corridors move across 24 screens. Some kilometres away on Broadway the transport police have their own control, where they keep an eye on the 270 stations of the London underground.

That morning there is panic at King's Cross; four lines are out of action because of a systems failure. "The main purpose of our video surveillance is to ensure the smooth running of the service," explains Kevin Clack, responsible for security on the Tube. "This is absolutely necessary in order to organise the 3.5 million daily travellers". In all, there are 9000 cameras within the Greater London network and on the 1750 trains. There will probably be between 11,000 and 12,000 in 5 years time.

Beware of Fines

Axel, a young Londoner, sighs and shows the letter he has just received: a fine of 100 Euros for driving into the congestion zone, the 42 square kilometres around the centre of London subject to a city toll. "I did not even realise I was in the zone", he pleaded, swearing that he had not seen the big C painted in white on a red background. "No point in complaining", answered his wife Jane, "there's a photo of your number plate in the letter".

On the edge of the congestion zone, 1,500 cameras (not counting mobile police cameras) keep an eye on all wrong-doers, thanks to automatic number plate recognition. Over the last few months these cameras have also tracked lorries, buses and cars which do not conform with the anti-pollution regulations. This system is also to be found along the motorways, in the ports and service stations. Every day it is able to register 8 to 10 million number plates, looking for careless drivers and suspect vehicles. No hope for Axel: some weeks before, he received a lovely photo of himself, on a motorbike this time, driving along a bus lane.

Difficult therefore to remain incognito in London. Even when you park in the right place. "No coins? Pay on-line - it's fast and easy", say signs in certain parking areas. The motorist, having typed in the given number, has to give the code of the parking place, his number plate and the number of his credit card. In many streets in the centre of the city, this is now the only method of payment.

The users of the Oyster card, the electronic ticket usable on underground and bus, can also be tracked almost to the second. All that is needed in any station is to pass your card across the reader then to press the button "view Oyster card usage" and the number of the bus or the direction taken by the underground appear forthwith on the screen with exact times.

An Eye on Everything

"Going back into the underground? Don't worry, we won't lose sight of you!" One visit to the CCTV centre in Ealing, ensconced in the basement of the (neo-gothic) Town Hall, suffices for us to believe every word of the director, Neil Howard.

Welcome to this town, stuffed with cameras, which is one of the 32 boroughs of Greater London. By day and by night the operators of the control centre take turns in front of 56 monitors. Controls in hand, they zoom over faces and objects adjusting the focus. On the wall a map of Ealing gives the position of the 365 cameras in the community. In addition there are 15 mobile cameras, 130 housing estate cameras and when needed, all those cameras dedicated to observing the traffic (about 30) and those allocated to Transport for London (about 22) the organisation responsible for public transport. This many electronic eyes tracking law infringements, whether small or large.

"As we have a permanent radio link with the police, we are informed of the incidents which occur and we can use our control room whenever necessary", explains Neil Howard who has almost 30 years of military experience behind him, including a year in Northern Ireland. "We are also in contact with the control room of the Metropolitan Police in Hendon, N. London to whom we can send our images". Thanks to its two other CCTV mega-centres in Lambeth and in Bow, the Met can supervise the surveillance camera systems of the whole of Greater London and has access in this way to 30,000 cameras.

21,500 Euros per camera

In the underprivileged and multicultural borough of Newham cameras are everywhere; "Fear of crime is such that everybody wants one in their street" sighs Keith Baldock, who directs the operations from the drab municipal building of the car pound central depot. "The problem is that a CCTV camera is expensive to install, to maintain and to use". What with the camera itself, the stand (8 metres high), the wiring and the infrastructure, a new camera costs 31,500 euros; not forgetting of course the salary of the operators. The infatuation in England for video surveillance therefore has a high price. "630 million Euros have been invested in CCTV in this last decade", deplores Charles Farrier, co-ordinator of the anti-CCTV campaign, whose black T-shirt states that "20% of the world's CCTV cameras watching 1% of the world's population. Welcome to the U.K."

The worst moreover is, according to Charles, that "the public is convinced that it is effective. But this has not been proved by a single study".

Proof by image

It is 5.30am on 17th February, 2007. In spite of this late hour there is a crowd in front of the night club High Class Venue, in Homerton High Street, Hackney. Two men, hidden behind a lorry, are watching. A car stops. The accomplices draw nearer, shoot the driver, leave, return and shoot again. In front of his monitor, the operator on duty at the Hackney CCTV control room in Stoke Newington has not lost his cool. He has filmed the number plates of the vehicles at the scene. As a result Junior and Rohan Gordon are arrested 4 days later and found guilty of murder in March 2008.

Andy Wells, assistant director of video surveillance in Hackney, is only too eager to show this video. "In 4 years, crime rates have fallen by 32% in our area", he states. His prescription: "Good operators, good cameras, good police". Andy Wells keeps an accurate tally of the contribution of his cameras to security in Hackney. "In 2007 we played a key role in 672 arrests and we facilitated finding 93 stolen vehicles."

The only problem is that a study of the efficacy of video-surveillance made in 2005 by the Home Office concluded that "the CCTV programmes evaluated have only had a marginal effect on delinquency". According to experts at the Home Office, 80% of the images are unusable for the purpose of identifying suspects. "Only 3% of crimes are solved thanks to CCTV", Mick Neville, a senior executive of Scotland Yard, stated to the Guardian last May. "A veritable fiasco" according to him.

And Fingerprints?

For Roger Reeve, the head of the CCTV control room at Harrow, the future is in high tech. His dream: hundreds of posts equipped with a broadband internet connection and spread around the town with cameras. He is not interested in speaking cameras, tested by several authorities as a means of warning offenders, nor is he interested in facial recognition facilities, as tested by several airports this summer. "We have tried them, but the technology has not yet been perfected", he says.

The mission of the National Policing Improvement Agency is precisely to predict the equipment of tomorrow. The latest discovery is a pocket computer used by police as a telephone, a radio and a receiver of surveillance images. "15,000 sets are already in service", says Nick Dayes, responsible for the project. "10,000 more are due to be delivered in September, 2008 and 5,000 in March 2009". He eagerly awaits the pocket computer's capability of mobile fingerprinting...


Posted in Anti-CCTV general - 12/12/2008

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