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Saturday, 22 May 2010

CCTV Cameras

"We will further regulate CCTV"

So says the coalition agreement. Why? How?

The fact is, most CCTV cameras are on private land: they are in shopping malls, in shops, in office car parks. If the government tries to regulate those cameras then they will get huge opposition from the retail trade who will quite rightly argue that the cameras deter shop lifting and crimes like pickpocketing.

The reason for the inclusion of the statement in the coalition agreement is the Daily Mail bugbear of public bodies operating CCTV cameras: the police, local councils and authorities like the British Transport Police. The Daily Mail and their ilk inflate the numbers of such cameras. The Daily Mail claims that there are 4.2 million such cameras. This is pure nonsense. No one really knows the actual figure because (as I said above) most are privately owned, but security professionals argue that the figure is around 1.2 million, less than a third the Daily Mail figure.

So where does the 4.2 million figure come from? Well according to Wikipedia:

"The exact number of CCTV cameras in the UK is not known but a 2002 working paper by Michael McCahill and Clive Norris of UrbanEye, based on a small sample in Putney High Street, estimated the number of surveillance cameras in private premises in London is around 500,000 and the total number of cameras in the UK is around 4,200,000." 

This is not acceptable at all! Putney High Street is not representative of all UK shopping streets and is not representative of all UK streets, so it is lazy and inaccurate to extrapolate the survey to the entire country.

A figure of 4.2 million cameras works out as 71 per 1000 people (1.2 million is 20 per 1000). Remember, this is the supposed figure as an average over all 60 million of us, so in an area of dense population there will be, well thousands of the things. By rights you would not be able to move for them in central London! When you sit down and think sensibly about the issues, there are far fewer CCTV cameras than the right wing press insist there are.

In an attempt to get a measure of the cameras operated by public bodies (which I think will be the target of any new regulation) the BBC conducted a survey. For county councils they found:

"West Sussex has the highest number of CCTV cameras in the sample of English counties, with 0.52 per 1,000 people. "

Note that figure: the highest number for a county council is 0.52 per 1000, as opposed to the Daily Mail's average of 71. So the Mail's average is a factor of 137 larger tnan the county with the most cameras!

But what about cities. Well London, as the nation's capital with foreign embassies and government buildings, is likely to have more cameras than most cities. The BBC survey says that Wandsworth has the highest number of cameras with just under 4 per 1000 people. Again, the Mail's figure of 71 is 7.6 times larger than the actual figure for the borough with the most number of cameras.

These figures show that there are a lot fewer CCTV cameras than the Daily Mail insists. If you scale up the highest county council figure then there are a maximum of 31,000 publicly operated cameras in the UK, or if you take the Wandsworth figure then there are a maximum of 240,000 publicly operated cameras in the UK. The figure I gave above, of 1.2 million cameras shows that the vast majority (over a million or five times as many as publicly owned) cameras are privately owned. So the claims of "the state spying on us" is nonsense, it is the private sector spying on us!

Do people dislike CCTV cameras? The evidence is that people like cameras. The Home Office surveyed people and found that 70% of people were in favour of them.

If the coalition government bring in further regulation what will the effect be? The first thing to say is that the government is unlikely to regulate the use on private property. Since that is where most of the cameras are used, it just shows how ineffective the legislation will be. Of the relatively few publicly operated cameras the effect will be that Tube and railway stations will close earlier, and late bus services around the country will be removed. In cities there will be an increase in petty crimes like pickpocketing, "dipping" and bag snatching. In residential areas women in particular, will feel more vulnerable.

Nick Clegg's attempt to cosy-up to the Daily Mail ranters will have a detrimental affect on our society.


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