Brit's are always on Candid Camera

October 23, 2007

“There was, of course, no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment…. You had to live-did live, from habit that became instinct-in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.” –George Orwell, 1984

It used to be that troublemakers could lounge on the planters outside the McDonald’s there and pick apart the geraniums to their hearts’ content. A hamburger server or customer could complain, but these days, Big Brother does the job.The closed-circuit television camera lurking down the street from the fast-food restaurant bellows menacingly at the first sign of danger to the flora, or a cast-off cigarette butt or fast-food wrapper. “Pick it up,” commands a booming voice from . . . where, exactly?

The closed-circuit cameras in Gloucester and several other British towns now come equipped with speakers, meaning Big Brother is not only watching, he’s telling you what to do.

“When people hear that, they tend to react. They pick up the litter and put it in the bin,” said Mick Matthews, assistant chief police constable in this old cathedral city of 110,000 in the rolling Cotswold Hills .

For all the increased antiterrorism security measures in the United States , there is probably no society on Earth more watched than Britain . By some estimates, 4.2 million closed-circuit cameras, or one for every 14 people, quietly, and sometimes not so quietly, monitor the comings and goings of almost everyone – an average person is caught on camera up to 300 times a day.

Thanks in part to Britain ‘s history of terrorist attacks by the Irish Republican Army, some early, high-profile law enforcement successes helped imprint the potential benefits of closed-circuit television on the popular imagination.

With more than $200 million in funding since 1999, closed-circuit cameras were a fixture in British cities long before terrorist attacks began prompting other governments to step up surveillance of their populations.

Cameras are fixed on lampposts and on street corners, above sidewalks, in subways, on buses, in taxis, in stores, over the parking lots, in mobile police vans, and in some cities, even perched in the hats of police officers walking their beats.

Surprisingly clear images of Britons engaged in apparently nefarious activities have become a staple on the evening news there; few of the country’s many terrorism trials unfold without the jury being presented with multiple images of the defendants carrying alleged backpack bombs or driving up to a storehouse of explosives.

Pub patrons in one town last year had their fingerprints scanned as they walked in (bringing up their criminal records on a computer screen); some cities are talking of putting electronic chips in household trash cans to measure output; a toll-free “smoke-free compliance line” takes snitch reports on violators of the new national ban on smoking in public places.

The DNA profile of every person ever arrested – even those briefly detained for, say, loitering and released without charge – is on file in what is believed to be, per capita, the largest such database in the world, with 3.9 million samples. It includes the genetic markings of an estimated 40 percent of Britain ‘s black male population.

For the majority of Britons, polls indicate, there is nothing wrong with the monitoring.

Public acceptance of closed-circuit television skyrocketed after the murder of toddler James Bulger near Liverpool in 1993. In closed-circuit camera footage that shocked the country, the killers, a pair of 10-year-old boys, were shown leading the trusting boy away from a shopping center.

So, how do YOU feel about closed-circuit cameras? I’ve searched the web and cannot find even an estimate of how many cameras might be watching us in the USA .  Is it a good thing? Let me know your thoughts.

As reported in the Boston GLobe and many newspapers across the country.

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