To paraphrase Alan Moore, his “V for Vendetta” depicted a world under constant audio and visual survelliance – and obviously, someone in London thought that was a fantastic idea.

London has been the scene for many works of dystopian fiction, from George’s Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta” and P.D. James’ “The Children of Men.” Each has centralized government surveillance as hallmarks of future societies. It would seem London has already crossed the threshold of establishing omnipresent eyes tracking the activities of average citizens.

A vast network

The cameras really are everywhere and have simply become part of public life, peppered throughout the Underground and every London borough. Most paradoxical are signs prohibiting photography in certain public buildings, posted right next to the CCTV advisory. They can record us, but we must not record them.

About three years ago now, the BBC plotted a density map1 of CCTV cameras in England. The Borough of Wandsworth had the highest number of cameras per thousand people, totaling about 1,113 individual devices, outnumbering the surveillance networks in Boston, Dublin and Johannesburg. Islington has about one camera per every 1,000 sets of feet walking the streets. The City of London has about 619 cameras to cover a population of 9,000, a staggering 68.7 cameras per 1,000 people.

Creeping feelings of being watched extend beyond London’s vast limits too. The Shetland Islands and Corby –  two of the smallest local authorities in the United Kingdom – both have more CCTV cameras than are run by the San Francisco Police Department.

Security and transparency

CCTV recordings are subject to the Data Protection Act2, so people can request the footage of themselves going about their business, dancing with a sign or whatever. Similar to U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests, these can be frustrating to file and wait for.

Police have argued that to provide full maps of CCTV placements would be useful to terrorists, so few complete listings exist. Some boroughs, like Lambeth, do have local maps available.3 Artist Manu Luksch mapped the cameras around Whitehall4, though not without encountering significant police resistance.

The paranoia is somewhat understandable, since the British seem genetically predisposed to being blown up after years of battling the IRA, surviving the Nazi Blitz and more recently, the July 7, 2005 London Tube bombings. In that latter case, CCTV did nothing to prevent the attacks. For the July 21, 2005 bomb attempts to follow, authorities could merely hit rewind and see what happened, which is useful5 from the standpoint of prosecuting those responsible.6 But the constant drone of overhead voices throughout the Underground is how CCTV cameras hang from the ceiling “for your safety and security.”

Privacy advocates view CCTV as an affront to personal liberties. Though do people really have a right to privacy in public spaces? A photojournalist would claim snapping pictures of someone on the streets for publishing is fair and legal practice. Is it really any different when the government does it?

Debate rages over whether CCTV impacts crime statistics, with some reports showing little effect7 save for on car-related infractions, even while three quarters of anti-crime spending is allocated to the networks. Critics claim it’s used to spy on legal protests8, classrooms9 and pubs.9 Studies have argued the impact is difficult to measure10 because camera presence can lead to increases in reported criminal activity, which can skew numbers of actual crimes committed, prevented or punished.

Senior police officials have both supported CCTV as an investigative tool while others have questioned whether it’s being used effectively.11

Some Brits seem convinced it’s meant only as a deterrent, explaining why signs and voices are constantly warning people whenever CCTV is in use. If police really wanted to capture criminals in the act and prove the system’s effectiveness, wouldn’t they be more shifty about it? The cameras aren’t always turned on either, and the sheer number of devices on the network make it inconceivable they can all be individually and constantly monitored anyway, as demonstrated by the Tube bombings.

Wandsworth, with its very high concentration of cameras, had a 8.69 percent crime rate in May 2012.12 Neighboring Richmond had 7.07 percent and is in the bottom ten boroughs for number of cameras. Comparing the Metropolitan Police’s London crime map13 and City of London statistics14 against the BBC’s camera density findings1 and ONS population statistics15 doesn’t seem to yield a direct connection between CCTV presence and criminal incidents. There are varying socioeconomic factors contributing to crime rates, but can data be produced demonstrating CCTV’s direct impact on those numbers? Or is it merely a data collecting system to better prosecute criminals after the fact?

  1. “The statistics of CCTV” BBC News. July 20, 2009. Link  2

  2. “Data Protection Act 1998” The National Archives. Link 

  3. “Cameras in Lambeth, London” Lambeth. Retrieved July 2012. Link 

  4. “Mapping CCTV around Whitehall” AmbientTV. Link 

  5. “Keep an eye on our growing surveillance culture” The Guardian. February 8, 2009. Link 

  6. “21 July 2005 London bombings” Wikipedia. Link 

  7. Travis, Alan. “CCTV schemes in city and town centres have little effect on crime, says report” The Guardian May 17, 2009. Link 

  8. Doctorow, Cory. “How British cops are criminalising peaceful protest” BoingBoing. March 27, 2009. Link 

  9. Doctorow, Cory. “English schoolkids go on strike until CCTVs are removed from classes” BoingBoing. May 22, 2009. Link  2

  10. Doctorow, Cory. “London police demand that new pub owner installs a CCTV as a licensing condition” BoingBoing. February 9, 2009. Link 

  11. “The Effectiveness of Public Space CCTV: A Review of Recent Published Evidence Regarding the Impact of CCTV on Crime” Scottish Government. December 2009. Link 

  12. “Police ‘not using CCTV properly’” BBC News. July 20, 2009. Link 

  13. “Metropolitan Police Crime Mapping” Metropolitan Police Department. Retrieved July 2012. Link 

  14. “Crime map” Metropolitan Police Department. Retrieved July 2012. Link 

  15. “2010 Population Statistics” London Datastore. Retrieved June 2012. Link