London Riots, Big Brother Watches: CCTV Cameras Blanket the UK

Tens of thousands of cameras are watching Britain's every move, including roughly 8,000 in and around the city of London

one-nation-under-CCTV.jpg

Today Scotland Yard released photos of suspected rioters captured on CCTV cameras throughout London on Flickr.

The Met certainly has a lot of footage to draw on. Britain has enthusiastically embraced video surveillance over the last two decades in an effort to reduce crime. It has more cameras per capita than any other European country and is widely reported to have the most of any country in the world, though that comparison is not based on reliable data.

A commonly quoted figure is that there are as many as 4.2 million cameras, or one for every 14 people.

In London and its surrounding boroughs alone, local authorities have a minimum of 8,000 cameras trained on the public. If they were all running, they generated something like 36 million minutes of video of the last several days of rioting.

The estimates for just how many cameras have their sights trained on the British public vary wildly. A commonly quoted figure is that there are as many as 4.2 million cameras, or about one for every 14 people. This is a highly dubious estimate, based on a count on two London streets nearly a decade ago. There are no official statistics on the numbers of cameras operated by homeowners and shopkeepers, cameras the 4.2 million figure purports to include.

All that can be know with any degree of certainty is the number of cameras operated by the 428 local borough authorities throughout the country. Big Brother Watch, a nonpartisan campaign against state surveillance, sent Freedom of Information requests to those authorities and found that they operated nearly 60,000 cameras in 2009. In addition to those cameras, the observation centers of many boroughs also monitor the footage of cameras owned by private citizens, who pay the boroughs a fee for the monitoring service, said Daniel Hamilton, director of Big Brother Watch, in an interview.

Arrests and prosecutions resulting from the CCTV footage will be applauded by many Britons, but the cost of each arrest is high. Big Brother Watch estimates that the more than 300 million pounds spent on installing and operating CCTV cameras between 2007 and 2010 could have paid the salaries of some 4,500 extra cops per year. Boots on the street could have been more effective than cameras in staunching the violence of the last few days before it had spun out of control.

Image: Reuters/Toby Melville.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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