Hampshire Deputy Chief Constable Ian Readhead has expressed concerns about the number of CCTV cameras being deployed. He described it as ‘Orwellian’, especially in places where the levels of crime don’t seem to justify the expense — both financial and in terms of lost civil liberties.
It is not the cameras themselves that worry me. One, five or even twenty CCTV cameras observed by human operators provide a reasonable means of monitoring security. But link the cameras to all of the other cameras in the country, and apply some form of intelligent storage, search, and alert facility and suddenly the prospect of ‘Big Brother’ becomes more real.
What is most frightening is that we have already surrendered to this level of monitoring in our telephone communications. The US intelligence’s Echelon system provides exactly this type of automated monitoring of our calls, searching for keywords that might indicate terrorist activity, or whatever else they might be looking for (forgive me if I’m not too confident that such powers aren’t being abused).
If we are to debate the ‘right’ level of CCTV coverage in the UK, we need a more sophisticated understanding of how the video captured will be processed and used. Will it just be a human operator looking at it? How long will the coverage be stored? Will it be linked to a national monitoring system at any point? Will the information be made available to anyone other than our own security services? I’m sure video footage of human behaviour on a shopping street, or responding to advertising stimuli would be immensely valuable to advertisers.
The same concerns apply to any form of monitoring, and are multiplied when different types of data are connected. Banking information, linked to phone records, CCTV coverage, and online activity tracking, all accessible to the police and automatically monitored? The end of civil liberties, or just a very safe country?
These are questions we all need to address, and soon. With data technologies advancing at their current rate, dealing with the volumes of data such a system would collect won’t be impossible for much longer.