Coming from one of the most crime-ridden cities in Europe, within a week, the one thing that struck me as an American resident was that I was able to look around St Louis and discover, to my surprise, that I was not being watched. Like a dog beaten into submission, I became skeptical: “Wait! Why aren’t there any cameras watching my every move?….Do you mean to say that the public can be trusted here!?….Hmm….that doesn’t sound right…”
Many will, at this point, disagree with me. But I would like you to consider this for shock comparison when I say I felt I was “not being watched”. Sources claim the United Kingdom has more surveillance cameras in operation per person than any other country in the world. 20% of the world’s surveillance cameras are found in the UK, according to the Daily Mail’s 2005 report. The 2002 EU study by UrbanEye concluded that the UK has a minimum 4, 200,000 surveillance cameras in public, estimated at one camera for every 14 people. One indicative figure this report estimated, was the average Londoner being captured on camera approximately 300 times a day. An Orwellian tragedy this may be to some hearing it for the first time, but the real tragedy is how this intrusion quickly became an everyday fact of life, a norm for Britons. Stand at any one point in the city of London, and it isn’t hard to believe. At ground level, in a bus, a shop, underground, in an alleyway or under a lamppost in a leafy park; look up and you’ll see a camera looking back at you.
In an unsurprising backlash, a frequent sighting were vandalised and broken cameras. Against all good reasoning, the government went ahead with technological redevelopments resulting in today’s newer “indestructible” cameras being more sophisticated. One example of this outside Britain are the bullet-proofed cameras adopted by the Chicago Police Department. There is still scarce evidence to support these devices as crime deterrents but these developments have gone ahead largely unpetitioned, save for a few towns who still push for answers. Video Content Analysis and biometric analysis now being standard features, high resolution data is now a forensic prerequisite when using surveillance footage. The introduction of the IP camera and it’s sound recording now enables footage to be wirelessly streamed (some of up to 30 frames a second) to a viewing device, recordable instantly. The suspicious usage of thermographic cameras for surveillance has also become a lawful requisite under certain jurisdictions. Angry and vocal as the British public have been about their privacy being reduced to a mere privilege, what is questionable is why the British public did not categorically fight the government on this sooner. Yet now we are no longer alone; Closed Circuit Television/CCTV cameras became landmarks of modern life on the Continent over two decades ago.
The question of surveillance cameras in everyday society is now being raised outside Europe. Growing numbers of surveillance cameras in the US raises concerns that mass CCTV will compromise human rights in America as it has elsewhere. Of course, this same argument was flogged to death years ago in Britain, the only difference being that rather than being held as a propositionary argument, it came as a public outcry to subjection. Those lobbying against the widescale use of CCTV in the US, present the example of the British handling of public surveillance as a strong argument against it’s use. A country connected by highways, one of the stronger ongoing arguments in America is the (mis)use of red light cameras at traffic intersections. Studies have not only raised the breach of privacy issue at being photographed, but raised the profiles of car crashes and accidents, caused by motorists’ slamming on their breaks at camera intersections with dangerously “adjusted” red light phasing. The fine for passing through a red light varies by state and city and can be anything up to $390, as found in California. A similar argument contested in Britain, regards the use of speed cameras on the motorway, and bus lane cameras used to penalise motorists using lanes restricted for buses as traffic control. With speed cameras proving largely ineffective, the political contention raised in the UK resulted in many devices being taken down, as the government revenue generated from these cameras was brought into question.
We may never really know how many cameras there really are watching us in the world. But in a way it’s small relief being away from intrusion as intense as in London. Still I’m not entirely sure how long this quietude in St Louis may last. Mysto and Pizzi’s latest Geico campaign ditty may have been the inspiration of experiences closer to home than first thought….