Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Big Brother's Always Watching in Britain

Big Brother In Britain
By Jane Wardell
Associated Press

LONDON -- The teenagers who stabbed wealthy Joao Da Costa Mitendele to death before burgling his home were careful to conceal the crime. They used a pretty girl to gain access to his apartment, where they wore rubber gloves while committing the murder.

What they hadn't counted on was the phalanx of video cameras that silently watched and recorded them leaving the local subway station, buying those gloves and approaching 45-year-old Mitendele's apartment in suburban north London. The same cameras caught their hasty return journey to the station half an hour later.

The tapes sealed the fate of the so-called "Honey Trap" gang when played in court earlier this year. Seven of the group were convicted of offenses ranging from manslaughter to conspiracy to rob and sent to jail for a minimum of seven years each.

Big Brother is always watching in Britain.

An estimated 4.2 million closed-circuit TV cameras observe people going about their everyday business, from getting on a bus to lining up at the bank to driving around London. It's widely estimated that the average Briton is scrutinized by 300 cameras a day.

The phenomenon is enabled by the arrival of digital video, cheap memory and sophisticated software. And Britain is acknowledged as the world leader of Orwellian surveillance - perhaps because it has the experience of Irish terrorism, and is on guard for worse.

Chicago is planning to copy London, though on a much smaller scale. Mayor Richard Daley said Thursday 2,000 cameras would be linked in a network monitored by sophisticated software to alert authorities to potential crimes or acts of terrorism.

London authorities maintain the cameras deter crime, and despite some claims to the contrary and the outrage of civil libertarians, the public seems willing to accept the constant monitoring for the greater good.

In the past two months, British police used or publicized CCTV imagery during investigations into a 12-year-old robbing a store at gunpoint, the disappearance of a doctor, attacks by a serial rapist, a father and son hit by a train, laptops stolen from a school and a soccer riot.

Cameras loom over city centers, shopping malls, train stations, university grounds, public parks, beaches, airports, offices and schools.

"Britain, almost without anyone noticing, has become the surveillance capital possibly of the world, certainly of Europe," said Barry Hugill, a spokesman for the civil rights group Liberty.

The cameras are concentrated mostly in the main cities. In London, the train stations contain 1,800 cameras. And there are more than 6,000 cameras in the London Underground - including at Edgware Station in north London where Mitendele's killers were caught on tape - and 260 around Parliament.

"The uses are absolutely phenomenal. In some places, there are cameras in schools in the classroom so parents can be shown the footage if a child misbehaves," said Peter Fry, spokesman for the CCTV Users Group.

The ability to store images digitally has played a key role in fostering the industry's growth. Gas stations around the country are testing automatic number plate recognition to catch people who fill up but don't pay. The technology is also being used to enforce London's $9 charge for vehicles entering the city center. A police database scans license plate numbers for everything from suspected terrorists to traffic offenders. Mobile cameras are moved to crime hotspots.

Some communities have asked for cameras to be installed, seeking to scare off prostitutes and drug dealers.

In his new book, "The Naked Lunch, Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age," American author Jeffrey Rosen expressed amazement at the easy acceptance.

"Instead of being perceived as an Orwellian intrusion, the cameras in Britain ... were hailed as the people's technology, a friendly eye in the sky, not Big Brother but a kindly and watchful uncle or aunt," he wrote.

However, not everyone in Britain is happy with the seemingly relentless march of CCTV across the country. The Trades Union Council has warned of a rise in the illegal use of cameras to monitor employee behavior.

Will Kittow, 38, a van driver enjoying a coffee break in Soho, said he was concerned about how many times he is captured on film driving around London.

"All this information is going somewhere. It doesn't take a genius to work out that it is going to be misused," he said.

A study by crime reduction charity NACRO found the technology reduced crime by only 3 percent to 4 percent while better street lighting led to a 20 percent reduction.

"There's an illusion that it makes people safe when it does no such thing," said Ian Brown, a researcher at the Foundation for Information Policy Research.

© 2004 Daily Herald, Paddock Publications, Inc.