Cambridge2Cambridge: Smile! You and 13 of your friends are on camera


A CCTV camera watches over Big Ben

Once again the Record catches up with JESSICA CORSI, our correspondent from the other Cambridge, who is pursuing her LL.M. at that vaunted U.K. institution. This week, Jessica explores Britain’s vast security system.

Everywhere you walk in Cambridge, UK, you encounter sidewalks stamped with notices announcing the presence of closed-circuit television cameras, and if you look closely enough, you might even see the cameras above you. Where I live, cameras watch all corridors in the residence halls and the rooms in public spaces, and signs in the entryway of the buildings let visitors know that they are on camera. Yesterday, when a woman at the local coffee shop claimed she had paid with a ten pound rather than a five pound note and should receive more change, her server responded that they could check the video footage from the cameras if she liked; she declined. This surveillance phenomenon is not unique to Cambridge. Closed circuit television, or CCTV as it is known by everyone in the UK, blankets the entire island and is only one aspect of Britain’s comprehensive surveillance state.

I was completely unfamiliar with the level of daily surveillance that goes on here when I arrived. To obtain my student visa for the UK, I had to submit biometric information by making an appointment at an official location, being fingerprinted, having my photo taken, and answering questions, as per student visa rules in force since 2007. If I had been studying in a field besides law, I might have had to undergo a background check. It gave me pause to submit this information at the time, but I guessed-wrongly-that it had something to do with reciprocity and U.S. biometric requirements present at U.S. borders. It is actually part of a seemingly progressive UK policy of expanding government control over very personal data, including DNA.

Visiting London before the start of the school year last October, I couldn’t help but noticing the constant CCTV signs, mostly in private businesses, and once again I was awakened to the notion that the British government was watching me. I began to investigate what these cameras were and why they were there. I was also curious as to what Brits thought of them, and was incredibly surprised to find that they don’t seem to think of them much at all. Anecdotally, the majority of 20-somethings in the UK that I have spoken to begin by saying that they hadn’t ever much thought about it, except to avoid incurring speeding tickets on the stretch of highways where the cameras snap photographs of any cars driving above the limit (then handily mail you a ticket and add points to your insurance, made possible entirely by these cameras.) While the ever present watchfulness has been lampooned in such pop songs as “Stars of CCTV” and British newspapers such as the Daily Mail run stories about “Big brother” going “mad” by placing 30 cameras to “spy” on one block, what may have been an initial protest appears to have died down.

It seems that cameras have crept into British life slowly over the last few decades, but that their presence has exploded in recent years, aided by such eerily named 1994 UK Home Office reports as “CCTV-Looking Out for You,” which position CCTV as a safety enhancing force. A leading study from 2002 estimates that the UK has 4.2 million security cameras, or 1 camera for every 14 people, making Brits the most watched people on the planet. While this study is contested, not to mention likely outdated (newspapers state that the exact number of cameras is unknown), this uncertainty is in and of itself an interesting and worrying phenomenon.

Certain high profile crimes, including the London terrorist bombings, have been solved using CCTV footage, and the cameras are touted as protecting citizens from ills ranging from child murders to London traffic congestion. However, not all government members are equally certain of their utility, with UK detectives speaking out in 2008 and claiming that the billions of pounds spent on the system produce 80% unusable footage and have assisted in solving a mere 3% of crimes.

The widespread nature of camera surveillance in the UK is startling, but it is only the tip of the iceberg in regards to recently ramped up surveillance policies. In June 2008, The Economist ran an article on the myriad ways in which the UK is encroaching upon its inhabitants’ civil liberties and conducted a survey on British attitudes towards these actions. The article lamented everything from the fact that Britain holds the DNA of 4 million of its 60 million citizens, “including a third of the black men in the country”, gained by swabbing every single person that is arrested regardless of whether a charge is ever brought against them; to the recent invention of new crimes such as “glorifying terrorism” or “religious hatred”; the erosion of legal protections such as the 2005 suspension of the prohibition on double jeopardy; centralizing health records in a massive computerized database; and the fact that CCTV cameras now survey unpopulated areas via hovering airplanes adapted from army models. While poll results showed that most people surveyed thought it “broadly bad” for government collection of personal data to increase, all of the specific questions, such as whether or not detention without charge should be extended to 42 days, were voted “broadly good,” leading the author of the article to conclude that few modern Brits can be bothered to care about these encroachments.

Here at the University, we are surveyed in other strange ways not dreamed up by the Home Office. We pay for all of our meals and drinks, including alcoholic drinks purchased here, with one card. If your bar tab becomes too high, the Senior Tutor may pull you aside and ask you if you have developed a drinking problem or if the number of purchases you make implies that you are not attending to your studies. Friends have had notes slipped under their doors from those responsible for watching over the day to day running of our college alleging that they have been “seen” smoking cigarettes or talking loudly after dark, or whatever it may be, in an area of the college where they should not be engaging in such activities. Indeed, we cannot check out mailboxes without having either a few live human beings or cameras watching us do so. This might be nice if I was worried about the integrity of my mail, but I remain nonplussed.

Instead, what lingers for me is not a sense of increased protection, but the creepy feeling that I have no privacy outside of the most intimate spaces. While the adage goes that the innocent should have nothing to worry about, I for one would like to be able to walk to my kitchen and get a pot of yogurt without the cameras knowing. I’m not sure where the impulse comes from, but I prefer anonymity in my daily routines. Perhaps it stems from knowing the harm that could be done with mass databases of images and DNA and medical records. Perhaps I’ve read too much Orwell. In either case, I remain disturbed.

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