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LEVA Looks at Past and Future of UK Surveillance

Standards are needed, according to one of Britain's top surveillance policy experts, for both the technical operation of CCTV and for how it's used.

The United Kingdom has gained a reputation as the nation with the greatest use of video surveillance technology.

At the 2009 conference of the Law Enforcement and Emergency Services Video Association this week, Graeme Gerrard, Cheshire’s deputy chief constable and one of Britain’s top CTTV experts, spoke of the kingdom’s experience, and it’s not all as clear-cut as one might think.

While surveillance technology has exploded over a couple of decades, there are still a host of issues with coordination and operation—most notably the lack of standards on digital multipixel cameras.

Gerrard framed the issue as dual policy mission: How does government do its job of keeping people safe without diminishing the individual rights that lie at the heart of the free society? What are the costs of living in a free society? And just because we have the technology to implement, should we do so?

He offered a little history.

First of all, he said, Britain has no privacy laws along the lines of those in the United States and Canada—not even a Constitution. In the United Kingdom, he said, the police can do pretty much anything they want, in terms of surveillance, unless there’s a specific law saying they can’t. They can wiretap communications without warrants, for example.

Combine that absence of American-style individual rights with an exponential growth in crime from the 1970s to the 1990s, along with high-profile bomb attacks from the Irish Republican Army, and the public largely cheered the security improvements.

The first public CCTV in England cams came in 1975—20 of them in the London Underground. In 1985, the seaside village of Bournemouth installed four cameras to combat vandalism. By 1996, the Underground had 500 cameras. In 2004, one study calculated some 4.2 million cams, some public but the vast majority private, although Gerrard questions the accuracy of that number.

Britain does have the world’s largest DNA database, along with license plate recognition systems tracking some 10 million vehicle movements everyday. It also has other crime and suspect databases and a powerful ability to cross-reference that information, he said.

“But, just how far do you want to go?” he asked.

Surveillance was central to a watershed moment in the British national psyche—the 1993 abduction of a 2-year-old from a shopping center by a pair of 10-year-old boys, and their subsequent brutal murder of the toddler. You can’t identify the kids’ faces, but without the video surveillance, Gerrard said, the police would never have suspected perps so young. And with just one video, there would have still been the possibility that the big kids just led the little kid out of the store, where he ran into further trouble; but other images showed the 10-year-old with the kids in a couple of locations, leading police to interrogate and gain confessions from the kids.

Also in 1993, the spectacular bombing of the Warrenton gas works, along with nail bombs (also injuring toddlers) had the British public clamoring for solutions.

The proliferation of cameras has continued since, with localities still wanting more systems. But the experience has created some lessons for others.

For example, while HDTV has standards, security cameras do not. “It was very much a free-for-all,” Gerard said of the implementations.

Technicans still have to carry enormous amounts of equipment with them if they expect to service different systems.

(To combat exactly that issue, the HDcctv Alliance is working to bring standards to the high-definition security world. Click here, and read more in the January 2010 issue of Government Video.)

Also, while common perception is that cameras reduce public costs—by bringing such strong evidence that suspects plead out instead of bringing costly trials, for example—putting in cameras can actually increase the burdens on local govnernments, because they respond to more incidents. While the end result is more public safety, it comes with a financial cost. After, all Gerard said, the cheapest crime for the police is the one that goes unreported.

And, the cameras don’t seem to be a great deterrent against one of Britain’s most resilient traditions, the after-hours drunken street fight. But they do enable a speedy police response, saving many a skull from smashing on a sidewalk.

So, Gerrard asked, how does Britain get out of this mess?

Standards are needed, he said, for both the technical operation of CCTV and for how it’s used. It needs some performance standards, to measure the actual effectiveness. Individual jurisdiction need to decide what level of incident (a staggering drunk? impending graffiti?) will trigger a police response. And it needs some regime of regulation and inspection to enforce the standards.

And, he said, there need to be a commitment to training the next generation of public safety leaders to do it all and get it right.

Gerrard spoke Nov. 18 at the 20th annual LEVA conference and training, in Fort Worth Texas.

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