Friday, 21 March 2008

Candid camera

I really don't understand the widespread fuss about CCTV cameras. The claim that they are invading our privacy and creating a Big Brother society seems to me rather hysterical and over-the-top.

So what if a camera at the top of a building somewhere can see me blowing my nose or watching an attractive woman or wrestling with an over-stuffed sandwich? Where's the threat?

Critics say the ubiquitous CCTV cameras (the UK has one of the highest concentrations in the world) are intimidating us and putting us all under suspicion. They are the sign of an authoritarian society that wants to monitor its citizens' every movement.

I think that's farfetched nonsense. I don't feel in the least intimidated by the odd camera. No one's going to see anything particularly revealing or illicit, unless I'm fixing a drugs deal or handing over a bribe. And who in their right mind would do that in full public view anyway?

We don't mind hundreds of other passers-by watching our movements so why are we so worried about cameras seeing exactly the same thing?

They're only in public places after all, where we're expected to behave ourselves. It's not as if they're in our living rooms or bedrooms recording our private vices and eccentricities.

What's more, CCTV has caught quite a number of genuine criminals red-handed and led to convictions that wouldn't have happened without them. And that includes rapists* and muggers who seriously jeopardise street safety. If we can catch a few more of them, CCTV's just fine by me.

* An estimated 47,000 women are raped every year in Britain.

Oh dear! The ever-popular Grandad, usually brilliantly funny, has done a spectacularly unfunny post condemning political correctness. He says we should be free to call people anything we like, no matter how offensive, and stop being so over-sensitive. Micks, Paddies, golliwogs, what does it matter? Sorry, grandad, I couldn't agree less. The point of so-called political correctness is simply to have respect for other people. Of course it can be overdone but so can anything. And most of the extremist scare stories are tabloid inventions in any case. Is it so hard to call black people blacks and not niggers?

NB: In the interests of fairness, please also read Grandad's reply in Comments.


Thriftcriminal said...

I agree with you. I used to be in the "ooohh, that's an invasion of my privacy" group, but really, what harm do they do? If they were a bit more ubiquitous it might make crime a lot more difficult. The McCanns might not be in their awful situation.

That said I think I got snapped for speeding the other day, which is something I very rarely do, so there is a sense of unfairness about it.

Matt said...

I find myself similarly leaning toward the "it's a good thing" camp as a crime deterrent, assuming the government can be trusted. I'm not sure what nefarious thing they can do with images of people walking about.

It could be used to track people's behavior for the wrong reasons, such as going after political enemies in their personal lives (I suspect this happened to Eliot Spitzer, though not as a result of cameras) or harassing community activists or other people the political elite have an agenda against.

Like thriftcriminal I'm ambivalent about them in the traffic context. Minor traffic infractions sometimes happen by accident, a momentary lapse in judgment or skill say when the light turns yellow and you speed up to make it but it turns red and nonetheless get your picture taken, which does seem unfair because it punishes you disproportionately to your fault. Though maybe it's a good thing if we learn to surrender when we see a yellow light rather than speed up.

Nick said...

Thrifty - Good point about the McCanns. CCTV might have caught the abductor long ago and prevented the endless smearing of the McCanns themselves. How I enjoyed the tabloids' grovelling apologies for libelling them!

I also object to speed cameras, they're just income-generators. People get penalised for speeding which hasn't visibly endangered anyone at all. I got caught myself doing 45 on a 30 mph dual carriageway with no pedestrians anywhere in sight.

Matt - see above re speeding! Yes, CCTV can be used for the wrong reasons but so can anything. And usually people like Spitzer get nailed through a tip-off.

Grannymar said...

I have no problem with the cameras. My gripe is having them and not using them. How many times have we heard of a crime scene where there are cameras and they were not working properly or the film produced of such poor quality it cannot be used.

Jenny Muir said...

Nick, thank you for drawing our attention to Grandad's disgusting post. I have left a comment, and was amused to be told it would be moderated (he did allow it) - censorship isn't very PC, I think! Seriously, it really pisses me off that blogs like that get nominated for awards. Except that I would nominate him for an award for Bringing the Blogosphere into Disrepute.

Nick said...

Grannymar - Excellent point. I think a lot of criminals know that and gamble that the cameras aren't working and won't record them.

Jenny - I say, steady on. I wouldn't say Grandad brings blogland into disrepute but like all of us he can go too far.

Dave Hampton said...

Sure, I'll take the opposing view.

The concept of using CCTV to deter crime and to protect safety and property in the community is good.

Does it accomplish this, effectively, consistently, and is there value for the money spent (vs. spending it on more police or lighting, for example). The evidence is inconsistent:

Further, there is the potential for mischief. Are places are monitored, rather than individuals, and are people recorded on the basis of suspicious behavior rather than individual characteristics? Can operator's usage be monitored, can their recordings be secured, are my personal details safe? In a simple example, will camera control operators be prohibited from viewing private rooms through windows?

I don't want everyone to know what library books I read, what my banking transactions are, or what news I share in emails. This is no different. And, around the corner, technology for matching faces in crowds or license plates in traffic has the potential to turn cameras from watchers into shadowers.

I'd rather be left in peace.

Nick said...

Dave - I think the fear of people watching our behaviour on CCTV is also rather misplaced. When you think of all the people you'd need to monitor every camera 24/7, who's going to bother? Most of it would be deadly boring and unproductive, as I'm sure any copper scouring through old CCTV footage could tell you!

English Mum said...

Jenny: Grandad's a legend and this shouldn't be blown out of proportion. As Nick says, political correctness can be overdone and I think that's what Grandad was poking fun at. Great post by the way, Nick.

Thriftcriminal said...

@Dave Well while we are discussing effectiveness, how about electronically tagging the entire nation. Your emails and library books are safe, but now your movements can be traced. I quite like this idea, on the basis of if a crime is committed in a certain location who was in the vicinity at the time? This just creates a ready pool of suspects which can be whittled down to an offender, the burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt is still there to protect the innocent. Devils advocate enough? :-)

Nick said...

Mum - Yes, Grandad's a legend but then so were Norman Mailer and Ted Hughes. It doesn't mean they can't be criticised for behaving badly. And Grandad wasn't just overdoing it, he was taking issue with the whole idea of political correctness i.e. having respect for others. He may think it's okay to call people dykes, faggots, whores and sluts but people on the receiving end of such insults day in and day out wouldn't agree.

Thrifty - As you say, a ready pool of suspects and the innocent are protected by the reasonable doubt principle.

Baino said...

Wow Nick, this brought them out of the woodwork. I've always had the nothing to fear attitude to surveillance BUT I don't like the idea of not knowing I'm being filmed. I'm a bit on the fence with this one. CCTV cameras have a mysterious knack for justifying themselves regardless of what happens to crime. When crime goes up, the cameras get credit for detecting it, and when crime goes down, they get the credit for preventing it.

And take it easy on Grandad folks, it was all done in good fun. I think the point was about PC in the extreme. . not having Christmas decorations in kindys or calling St Patricks day 'Green Day' . . that kind of silliness that's dictated by minorities. I might add . .we can't call our Fairy Penguins by that name any more because we might offend 3 members of the Gay community! They must now be referred to as Little Penguins which must have hurt the virtically challenged no end!

(The gays I know don't give a shit by the way!).

I know 'Grandad'. He isn't real. He's the alter ego of a completely different man. Also he never censors his site unless it's hit by personal attacks on his commenters.

Finally . . .we're bloggers! There's no difficulty with privacy/anonymity even if you try to be anonymous! I could probably find you all in the phone book!

englishmum said...

Nick: Baino's right. I don't think he was suggesting the whores/faggots thing. It was more like the silliness of not being able to say 'deaf' but having to say 'aurally challenged' or whatever! He's lovely, honest! x

Mudflapgypsy said...

I have nothing to hide but my privacy.

No ones goddamn business what books I read, who I talk to or where I am.

I understand the idea that cctv is there as a deterrant but what sort of society have we let come about that sees this as a good thing?

Cops on the beat I agree with but 24 hr camera surveillance I abhor.
The UK is the most surveilled populace on the planet. The current govt have proposed taking dna samples from all primary school children and monitoring their behaviour to predict future criminality. Have they been reading too much Phil Dick??????

CCTV is only the start, we have let it become ubiquitous with nary a whimper. We, as a society need to be vigilant, our civil liberties have been eroded in the name of freedom.

Giving up our liberty for the illusion of security is shameful.

Nick said...

Baino - True enough, the cameras get the credit whether crime is detected or prevented. And it's hard to prove they're worthwhile.

I'm sure Grandad's heart is in the right place but I feel strongly he got a bit carried away on this one. And as I said, most of those horror stories turn out to be tabloid lies when you actually investigate them.

Mum - Oh I agree with you there, mad concoctions like 'aurally challenged' are absurd.

Muddy - 24 hour camera surveillance - who cares? Your neighbours can watch you 24/7 if they want but so what? They'd soon fall asleep from utter boredom I'm sure. But predicting criminality in primary kids from DNA samples is really creepy, I don't go along with that at all.

John Self said...

The problem with Grandad's comments, joking or not, is that the sort of ridiculous examples of 'PC gone mad' ((c) Daily Mail) that he cites are also not true. "Winterval"? Try reading this. "Baa baa Rainbow Sheep"? Not quite so lily-livered as it sounds when you read the full story.

So the difficulty is that these extreme (invented) examples are used to denounce the whole idea of political correctness, which as Nick points out, is a thoroughly admirable idea: as Martin Amis put it, an attempt to accelerate evolution.

People who actually think it's worthwhile to protest against political correctness are helping the morons like the Campaign Against Political Correctness who have to be read to be believed. See here for some fun with them.

Los Angelista said...

I just don't want see through your clothes cameras. And I wonder how the footage is used other than catching the bad guys!

Nick said...

John - Thanks for that! Yes indeed, where are all these mythical liberal do-gooders who want to rewrite the entire language to avoid offending every conceivable minority? As soon as you look for them, they turn out to be a media invention. But people get so obsessed with the (alleged) excesses they lose sight of the basic objective, which is simply common decency and courtesy.

Liz - No, those stories of X-ray cameras are scary. Those really would be misused! But as I say, I doubt if there's an army of people out there diligently watching every camera in every street. Hardly edge-of-your-seat entertainment.

Quickroute said...

All blown out of proportion indded there is a similar furore over several cities plans to create virtual reality views of neighbourhoods by taking millions of photos and processing the images via a supercomputer. If you happen to be out n' about as the photo is being taken you could be imortalised in a VR view of your hood!

Also Google earth has been the source of entertainment as you can see people sunbathing naked on rooftops or gardens - I kid you not!

Google Earth Naked People

Wisewebwoman said...

I disagree with you on the cameras. I really, really despise this sneaky invasion of our privacy. You get the Patriot Act in the states, the snooping on telephone and emails, etc. All for the sake of so-called democracy and protecting homeland. I mean where does it stop? Is there a line in the sand?
I don't particularly care for strangers seeing where I shop, how much money I'm taking from the ATM, what I'm throwing in the rubbish bin, what books I took from the library (Fahrenheit 451 anyone?).
You see where I'm going with this?
I hope so. Tis a very, very find line, I'm thinkin'.
As to Grandad, I was so shocked I was speechless. It was too severe a post to put down to a brain fart.
Thanks for speaking up, I couldn't find the words!!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I hadn't read Granddad's blog before and I won't again.

I am not a crybaby. I simply believe that good manners were invented so that we could live in the world together with minimal damage. It is never necessary to insult someone, and if you are focused on that someone's race or nationality, you are missing most of what he or she is about.

I don't like the idea of Big Brother watching me either.

Wisewebwoman said...

And furthermore Nick~~~
I decided to speak out on Grandad's blog, Nick, and did a long post on all the reason, IMHO, that name-calling never enhances anyone's life and is one step shy of outright discrimination.
I'm glad you mentioned him on your blog as I had simply deleted him from my favourites and now I see I needed to take action.

Nick said...

Quickie - Don't know anything about VR so can't really comment, but it sounds intrusive. Naked People is definitely intrusive.

www - I've read about the Patriot Act and it sounds like a nasty development. I wouldn't want anyone snooping on my emails and phone calls just because someone had tipped them off I was a 'terrorist'. Glad you saw Grandad's post the same way.

Heart - Exactly. Believing in good manners and not insulting people doesn't make you a crybaby. And 'crybaby' is of course a classic sexist insult.

Grandad said...

There seems to be a bit of a sub-debate going on here about my post. There also seems to be a complete misunderstanding of my message -

"He may think it's okay to call people dykes, faggots, whores and sluts but people on the receiving end of such insults day in and day out wouldn't agree."

At no point did I ever promote insulting language. I have stated in my comments that I am violently opposed to the use of any word in a perjorative sense. The majority of my readers read my post and got the message I was trying to put across. I will let their comments speak for themselves.

Dave Hampton said...

I appreciate the comments: I feel like a bit of a curmudgeon saying that I just want to be left in peace.

Article after article about life in the monitoring centers documents how long hours of boredom lead to prosecution of casual misdemeanors and outright voyeurism.

Government owes citizens a presumption of innocence, and a right to be left alone unless there is cause to intrude. I would rather not be actively monitored, not because I have anything to hide, but because I don't trust the watchers.

'Good discussion; good points, all.

Nick said...

Dave - I didn't know there were any monitoring centres to speak of, or is that just the Netherlands? I know some shops and offices and official buildings tend to monitor the cameras, but beyond that I thought most cameras were ignored unless some sort of evidence was needed.

Dave Hampton said...

No, this is an English thing: all the cameras are hooked into control rooms with active, live, human monitors:

They are starting to attach speakers to the system so that if they see someone doing something suspicious (or inappropriate) they can tell them on-the-spot:

Finally, the industry is trying to match mug shots to camera shots:

Again, I'm all for monitoring places for public safety and property protection. My issue is with live operators following and correcting individual activities. Presumption of innocence and right to be left alone are still my concerns.

Nick said...

Thanks for that, Dave. Very interesting links. I forgot about the police control rooms. I've no objection to people watching me or even asking me (remotely) not to do something I shouldn't be doing liking cycling on the pavement. This just seems to be an effective alternative to coppers on the beat doing the same thing. I'm concerned the watching might become voyeuristic but that's just a question of staff discipline.

Re mugshots linked to cameras, if the mugshot is of a known convicted criminal, fine. If they intended to take mugshots of everyone, I'd certainly be opposed to that.

Dave Hampton said...

Fair enough: although I think about it, I seldom notice it when I'm in the UK, and generally treat it like a variation of the cop on the beat, as you do. So far, it's been an overall good deterrent.

herschelian said...

just read this post Nick. Couldn't disagree with you more and for several reasons.
Firstly I sit in a court where CCTV footage is often produced - it is almost always absolutely useless for getting clear ID, and in fact very few crimes have been solved using CCTV.
Secondly Prof Martin Gill of University of Leicester Dept of Criminology has conducted the most comprehensive study of use of CCTV and in summary it deters petty crime for a short while (approx 8 mths) thereafter it fails to work; it has a major diffusion effect whereby crime moves into non-CCTV areas.
Local Authorities like what is a quick hit technological solution to council taxpayers demands that "something must be done about crime", and like it even more as Central Government gives them the money to install CCTV - which is ironic as the Home Offic Reseach Study on CCTV and crime comes to the same conclusions as Prof Gilbert ie that CCTV is of very limited value with the exception of when used in car parks. (If you look at this on line, be careful not to press print - it is 107 pages long!)
Worst of all it is function creep - CCTV installed for one reason ends up being used for another; also the people who monitor the images are not always of the highest calibre and sometimes have other uses for the footage.
In short, no society needs to monitor the daily activities of its citizens on the off chance that some may commit a crime. I do not want to be watched - no nefarious reason, I just don't.
I lived in SA under Apartheid, and all I can say is thank god they didn't have CCTV at their disposal.

Nick said...

Thanks, Herschelian. That's certainly a very convincing argument for getting rid of all the CCTV cameras again! I must admit when some cars were burnt out one night at my last workplace, the CCTV footage was useless because it was too far away from what was happening. And you're also worried about function creep and dubious use of the material.

I suppose my viewpoint now would be that I'm still not bothered by being watched, but why are we spending so much money on what seems to be a pretty ineffective measure?

Bock the Robber said...

Grandad said he didn't mind being called a Mick, a Paddy or a redneck culchie.

He didn't say anything about calling people golliwogs. He was talking about bringing back dolls that the PC people got banned, but perhaps you're too young to remember them. They were harmless.

Like Grandad, I'm thoroughly sick of people telling me what I may and may not say, depending on the ideology they happened to wake up believing on any particular day.

Nick said...

Bock - If Grandad's been misinterpreted, then so have I. I didn't say he minded such terms, the point is that many other people do. And I remember golliwogs very well, but again many people objected to them. Are you saying we should ignore other people's sensitivities?

Neither am I telling people what they may or may not say, I'm only suggesting we shouldn't say things that upset other people. Isn't that just common courtesy?

Personally, I don't think this debate is going anywhere, which is why I promised Grandad I would say no more on the subject.

Bock the Robber said...

I think we're too worried about offending people. The world is full of people waiting to be offended by something, and we can't be constantly tiptoeing around them.

Tell me this: what is it that's actually wrong with offending people?

Fergal said...

I think you've unwittingly proposed an ideal solution: surveillance microphones should record our every word and monitor us for use of inappropriate language.

If you don't see what all the fuss is about CCTV, then you're free to forward the police information on your whereabouts on a regular basis. But I think that it's no-one's business what I'm doing as long as its legal, so I'd rather not be filmed going about my daily business. Our privacy is not a gift from the state, to be rationed according to the exigencies of the common good. It is rather ours to keep or give away as we wish. Accordingly, "sure what's the harm in a few cameras" is not a good enough argument as it assumes that, all things being equal, the state has a right to poke it's nose into our affairs. It doesn't, unless we give it that right, and I don't feel like doing that, even if you do.

Nick said...

Bock, if you don't know what's wrong with offending people, there's no point in trying to explain.

Fergal - I see your point, and personally I put a high value on privacy, but privacy has always been subject to other people's interests. Which is why we have laws, to protect those interests. I wouldn't respect the privacy of a husband who's beating his wife for example.

Bock the Robber said...

Fergal: That's not an answer, just a dismissal.

I wasn't looking for enlightenment from you. I was asking you to articulate the thinking behind your position.