Sinister surveillance

July 12, 1996

Sophisticated Gulf War technology is finding its way on to the high streets of Britain as electronic surveillance moves into a new and sinister era driven by powerful commercial interests.

At a conference at Hull University this week Stephen Graham of Newcastle University raised broad-ranging concerns about hidden digital techniques which are leading rapidly to the "privatisation" of public spaces and creating a vicious circle feeding the public's paranoia about rising crime.

This week's machete attack on a Wolverhampton school has renewed calls for better security and CCTV monitoring in schools. But elsewhere fears are growing over the apparent explosion of new military-style high-resolution cameras with infra-red capability. A recent estimate suggested that there are now around half a million security cameras watching us as we drive, shop or walk around city centres. More than 500 new cameras are added to the total each week, at an annual cost of more than Pounds 300 million.

According to Mr Graham this growth industry is driven more by big business than by any real evidence of crime beating. "I am very concerned that the public's fear of crime is being heightened by the fortress mentality created by electronic surveillance on such a massive scale," he said.

Mr Graham said there was already evidence that the cameras were intensifying social control as organisations seek to integrate digitised information from the cameras with new computerised image databases. This would, for instance, allow retail firms to identify known shoplifters or the police to monitor "trouble-makers" in public places.

"The Government is in favour of this approach which they call the friendly eye in the sky," Mr Graham said. "The problem is that its negative aspects are hidden and subtle and the public debate so far has been far too general. This is a highly complex area to do with the collapse of social fabrics, the fear of crime, and the need for a feelgood factor in our cities. All of this is resulting in a scramble towards unregulated growth of electronic surveillance."

Alternative strategies to calm city centres and remove the necessity for automated electronic monitoring were being discussed at the conference "CCTV Surveillance and Social Control" including the 24 Hour City approach adopted in places such as Leeds and Manchester. Mr Graham said these resulted in more "natural surveillance" of public areas, which are opened up and animated through relaxed licensing and shopping hours. "This is a far preferable method of making people less afraid and gets around the feeling of American-style dystopia which I keep coming across in our city centres," he said.

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