Under scrutiny

Big Brother in Britain: Does more surveillance work?  Link from FuturePundit, who has some excellent analysis, links, and quotes about CCTV and crime.  These quotes are from the original article in the Christian Science Monitor:

[Closed Circuit TV] has become popular and widespread, with the result that Britons are by far the most watched people on earth, with one camera for every 14 people, according to recent estimates.  More than 4 million cameras observe all aspects of life, from town centers to transport systems, office towers to banks, commercial zones to residential areas, restaurants, bars, and even churches.  In 1990, just three towns had systems.  Now some 500 do, after a decade in which more than £250 million ($460 million) of public money was funneled into CCTV systems.
A government review 18 months ago found that security cameras were effective in tackling vehicle crime but had limited effect on other crimes.  Improved streetlighting recorded better results.
... in Britain, the public has had a soft spot for CCTV ever since it was used to dramatic effect to solve a wretched crime more than 11 years ago.  Most people can still picture the grainy footage of two juveniles leading 2-year-old Jamie Bulger by the hand out of a shopping mall in Liverpool.  He was found dead days later.  Without those images, experts say, police would have been looking for a culprit with an entirely different profile from the 11-year-old offenders.  "Since Jamie Bulger's case over here, the public see CCTV not as Big Brother but as a benevolent father," says Peter Fry, director of the CCTV user group, a 600-member association of organizations who use the technology.

I remember the images of Jamie Bulger's attackers.  The camera wasn't looking straight on, so the floor appeared slanted.  The two attackers held Jamie's hands, one boy on each side, and led him out of the mall, through the automatic sliding doors, to a quiet piece of rail track.  He looked so small between the two older boys.  It's not something you forget.

In "The Transparent Society" David Brin wrote about two possible futures of CCTV, which you can read on his website.  Chapter one of the book is online, this is a quote about two cities, both under CCTV surveillance:

Consider City Number One. In this place, all the myriad cameras report their urban scenes straight to Police Central, where security officers use sophisticated image-processors to scan for infractions against the public order -- or perhaps against an established way of thought. Citizens walk the streets aware that any word or deed may be noted by agents of some mysterious bureau.
Now let's skip across space and time.
At first sight, things seem quite similar in City Number Two. Again, there are ubiquitous cameras, perched on every vantage point. Only here we soon find a crucial difference. These devices do not report to the secret police. Rather, each and every citizen of this metropolis can lift his or her wristwatch/TV and call up images from any camera in town.  Here a late-evening stroller checks to make sure no one lurks beyond the corner she is about to turn.  Over there a tardy young man dials to see if his dinner date still waits for him by a city fountain.  A block away, an anxious parent scans the area and finds which way her child wandered off.  Over by the mall, a teenage shoplifter is taken into custody gingerly, with minute attention to ritual and rights, because the arresting officer knows the entire process is being scrutinized by untold numbers who watch intently, lest her neutral professionalism lapse.
In City Two, such micro cameras are banned from some indoor places... but not Police Headquarters! There, any citizen may tune in on bookings, arraignments, and especially the camera control room itself, making sure that the agents on duty look out for violent crime, and only crime.  Despite their initial similarity, these are very different cities, disparate ways of life, representing completely opposite relationships between citizens and their civic guardians. The reader may find both situations somewhat chilling. Both futures may seem undesirable. But can there be any doubt which city we'd rather live in, if these two make up our only choice?

Brin is an excellent science fiction author who uses decent science, it always bugs me when writers write scientifically nonsensical things.  It's worth reading the whole chapter.  I'd rather have public access to public cameras than central control, it's more democratic, if more problematical.  Stalkers could follow you home, but you'd have proof if every camera access was logged and public.  Privacy in public is an odd concept, everyone can see us now, the only difference is it's not recorded.  Cameras in public places would be OK, but which places?  Restaurants?  Malls and stores are already surveilled, but parks?  Schools?  Residential streets?  Car parks could definitely use them.  I could see places setting up as "privacy oases" where there are no cameras, no recording, no nothing.

Britain has radar cameras to check car speed.  You learn to stick to the speed limit, because it's all automated, the first you'd hear of it would be the speeding ticket in the mail.  And it does cut vehicle crime, the cameras on traffic lights stop you running red lights, and you do mostly stick to the speed limit.  By law the cameras have to be signposted, but at the back of my mind I expect there to be hidden unsignposted ones too, and this keeps my speed in check.

To me, a law is a law even if no-one is looking.  Even if you don't get caught, you've still broken the law, and the law is absolute, impartial, and merciless.  It bugs me when people say if you don't get caught, you did nothing wrong.  Laws are not flexible, you can't pick and chose which laws apply when.  All the laws apply to everyone, all the time, regardless of witnesses or lack thereof.  A country has the right to enforce their laws on whoever is within their borders.  The question is how those laws are enforced, and who watches the watchers.

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