Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) is a video surveillance technology which is used to monitor a variety of environments and activities.

While precise figures are hard to come by, it is estimated that Britain is monitored by over four million CCTV cameras, making us one of the most watched nations in the world. CCTV is also spreading. It is no longer restricted to private property, shops and city centres but is increasingly being rolled out in school classrooms, bars and pubs, and even swimming pool changing rooms.

Innovations in technology

While CCTV technology is becoming more sophisticated, regulation and safeguards have not kept apace.

Innovations include cameras that are combined with databases using 'facial recognition technology' to scan and automatically identify people's faces in crowds and cameras with microphones attached to pick up the conversations, as well as the images, of those being watched. 'Smart CCTV' is also increasingly used in tube stations to identify patterns of behaviour that suggest a crime is about to occur.

One particular innovation that uses CCTV cameras is ANPR. ANPR, or Automatic Number Plate Recognition, usually consists of a camera linked to a numberplate reading device. A photograph is taken of a motor vehicle, the photo is passed to the reading device and the numberplate is then instantly compared against database records. Tens of millions of vehicles are being photographed every day and records are then kept of the numberplate along with the date, time and location of the vehicle. These images are being stored for a number of years. In some cases, depending on the sophistication of the technology, the photograph of the vehicle may also include images of the front-seat passengers.

Does CCTV prevent and detect crime?

CCTV images can be a valuable tool in crime detection and they have been used effectively in a number of high profile cases over the past few decades. CCTV is however not a silver bullet. Often CCTV images are not sufficiently good quality to be used in criminal courts and it is relatively easy for someone to evade CCTV if they want to. Some police forces admit that they will not use CCTV footage because of the time and costs involved.

Similarly, its effectiveness as a crime deterrent is far from proven. Our crime rates are comparable with countries with very few cameras and Home Office funded research has concluded that the impact of CCTV on crime prevention is not significant.

Despite this, the Home Office has spent a huge amount of its crime budget on CCTV over the last few decades. This is money that has not been spent on other crime prevention and detection measures, such as more police on the streets or extra street lighting.

What is the problem?

Our main concern is that CCTV is dangerously under regulated. Until the passing of the Protection of Freedoms Act in May 2012 there was no legislation explicitly aimed at CCTV regulation. This Act provides for a code of practice covering the use of surveillance cameras and the processing of images or other information obtained from them. A Surveillance Camera Commissioner oversees the operation of the code.

While these changes are certainly welcome, problems remain. The codes of practice are not binding – authorities need only have ‘regard’ to the code and breaching it will not mean they automatically face legal sanction. Given the risk that unrestricted surveillance cameras pose to unjustifiably intrude in our privacy Liberty continues to call for stricter legislative regulation on their use.

In addition, data protection legislation governing how long images can be kept and accessed remains outdated and has failed to keep up with technological changes. Without detailed legislative regulation the risk of CCTV being misused and abused has always been high. This seriousness of this risk is exemplified by the case of two Merseyside council workers who were caught spying on a woman in her bathroom, even though the camera was not meant to film inside her home.

The large-scale expansion of CCTV in recent years also poses a threat to our way of life. We are however unlikely to wake up one morning with the feeling that we are suddenly under much more surveillance than the day before. This is because surveillance apparatus is assembled in a piecemeal way and often under the radar. Too much surveillance can fundamentally alter the relationship between the individual and the State and the experience of widespread visual surveillance may well have a chilling effect on free speech and activity.

ANPR, which has expanded enormously without any real public debate or knowledge, raises huge privacy concerns. This technology, originally used to monitor unregistered vehicles, is now routinely being used by the police to locate vehicles (and their owners) that might appear on other – and often dubious – police databases. There is almost no binding regulation about how this technology is to be used, who can be targeted using it, how long images are to be stored for and for what purpose. A database of this magnitude raises real privacy concerns and requires strong regulation.