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"CITIZEN, PICK UP YOUR LITTER": CCTV evolves in Britain [1]

posted by:Meghan Murtha // 11:59 PM // July 17, 2007 // ID TRAIL MIX

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Planning to litter, hang around looking intimidating, or just generally be a public nuisance in England? Careful where you do it.

This past spring, Britain, already host to more video surveillance cameras than any other country in the world [2], rolled out a new crime prevention measure: ‘Talking CCTV’ (closed-circuit television). Government officials describe the new development as “enhanced CCTV cameras with speaker systems [that] allow workers in control rooms to speak directly to people on the street.” The ‘Talking CCTV’ initiative is just one component of the British Home Office’s Respect Action Plan a domestic program designed to tackle anti-social behaviour and its causes. [3]

What this means in practice is that when staff, operating from an unseen central control room, observe an individual engaged in anti-social behaviour they can publicly challenge the person using the speakers. At the moment the one-sided conversation is relatively unscripted, although workers are expected to be polite. The first time a member of the public is spoken to about her behaviour, she hears a polite request. If she complies, she is thanked. If not, she can expect to hear a command . If she fails to correct her behaviour, the anti-social individual may find surveillance footage of her alleged infraction splashed across the evening news.

While ‘Talking CCTV’ may be novel, video surveillance is nothing new in Britain. It is estimated that a person living and working in London is photographed an average of 300 times a day. [4] One commonly quoted figure is that there is one surveillance camera for every 14 people in Britain. [5] This year the government is spending half a million pounds to set up ‘Talking CCTV’ in twenty communities and it is likely that the program will be expanded in future funding cycles.

Critics of the program argue that the money spent adding speakers to existing surveillance cameras is being wasted. The human rights organization Liberty contends that 78% of the national crime prevention budget in the past decade has been spent on CCTV equipment without proper studies conducted to assess whether or not the expenditure is effective. The organization argues that spending the same percentage of the budget to increase the number of law enforcement officers on patrol would go a lot further to improving public safety. [6]

‘Talking CCTV’ supporters, on the other hand, cite statistics that would please any elected official. In Middlesbrough, where the pilot program took place, officials claim that the system adds an “additional layer of security”:

At the bottom end of the scale, we use the talking CCTV for littering offences, for which it's proven to be absolutely a 100% success. Middlesbrough's cleanliness has improved dramatically since the speakers were installed.' he said. 'As you move up the scale a bit on public order offences - like drunkenness or fighting - we're proving the speakers are coming into their own, and we're recording about 65% to 70% success rate for those kinds of offences.

But measured against what? In their 1999 study of CCTV in Britain, Clive Norris and Gary Armstrong demonstrated how government and law enforcement officials often present CCTV as a panacea without proving it provides the dramatic results attributed to it. Their review of the numbers suggested that, throughout the 1990s, publicly-quoted figures about the benefits of CCTV were often inaccurate or did not tell the whole story, yet they were used to convince taxpayers to buy into the surveillance system. [7] This is not to say that Middlesbrough is faking its numbers. It is quite likely that 100% of individuals exhibiting the anti-social behaviour of littering, who were publicly reprimanded when caught on camera, put their garbage in the bin as directed.

The ‘talking’ modification to the existing CCTV system is being sold to the public as a way to clean up the streets and create a safe, law-abiding community. The Home Secretary, John Reid, states that the new measure is aimed at “the tiny minority who make life a misery for the decent majority.” Safe, clean streets sound great but one academic has noted that public debate about CCTV tends to be shaped more by the government’s focus on how technology can improve law and order and far less on other, more complex, issues about the appropriateness of using the technology. [8]

Government employees now have a powerful tool to single out and shame an individual in public. The fact that “100%” of litterbugs in Middlesbrough obeyed the authoritative, disembodied voice ought not to be underestimated. They likely did so out of shame and embarrassment. Before signing on to such a program, it is worth noting that video surveillance operators, no matter how well-intentioned they may be, are human and they bring their very human biases to their jobs. Norris and Armstrong’s 1999 study showed that the workers watching the monitors disproportionately targeted males, youths, and black people as surveillance subjects. [9] Biases may change depending on the era and the community. The past few years, for example, has seen an aggressive crack-down on panhandling in Liverpool, along with laws designed to minimize youth loitering about urban shopping districts. [10]

Will youth people, the urban poor, and members of visible minority communities be disproportionately targeted by ‘Talking CCTV’? Officially, the answer is likely to be “no” but it has been observed that:

Unequal relations between rich/poor, men/women, gay/straight and young/old are precisely relations that have been managed and negotiated through state activities via combinations of welfare, moral education, and censure and exclusion from public space. For some who inhabit our cities, their identity, through the eyes of a surveillance camera, is constructed in wholly negative terms and without the presence of negotiation and choice that middle class consumers may enjoy. [11]

Public shaming of individuals engaged in so-called anti-social behaviour may result in British cities ‘designing away’ social problems as those who are targeted too often by authorities will find other spaces in which to spend their time. [12] The rest of the community may find itself enjoying litter-free streets and ‘Talking CCTV’ will be given credit. But it will all have happened without the benefit of serious public debate about whose behaviour is anti-social behaviour and why that makes people uncomfortable. Britain has been trying to rid itself of anti-social behaviour for a long time now and it seems unlikely that a few talking cameras will get to the root of the problem.

[1] http://www.forbes.com/2007/06/11/urban-surveillance-security-biz-21cities_cx_cd_0611futurecity.html
[2] Clive Norris et al., “The Growth of CCTV: a global perspective on the international diffusion of video surveillance in publicly accessible space.” Surveillance & Society 2:2/3 (2004).
[3] Anti-social behaviour has been seen as such a problem in Britain for the past few decades that the Crime and Disorder Act 1988 gave it a legal definition and criminalized it. That was followed by the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003. Legally defining the problem doesn’t appear to have helped much as the government continues to struggle with anti-social behaviour across Britain.
[4] Clive Norris and Gary Armstrong, The Maximum Surveillance Society: The Rise of CCTV (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999): 3. (Note that this was a 1999 study. While this continues to be the figure quoted it is possible the number has increased in the past eight years.)
[5] Clive Norris et al., “The Growth of CCTV”.
[6] Norris and Armstrong also quote the ‘78% of the budget’ figure in their 1999 work. It is unclear if this continues to be the expenditure or if Liberty is quoting their work. See Norris and Armstrong, The Maximum Surveillance Society: 54.
[7] Norris and Armstrong, The Maximum Surveillance Society, 60-7.
[8] William R. Webster, “The Diffusion, Regulation and Governance of Closed-Circuit Television in the UK,” Surveillance & Society 2:2/3 (2004): 237.
[9] Norris and Armstrong, The Maximum Surveillance Society: 109-10.
[10] Roy Coleman, “Reclaiming the Streets: Closed Circuit Television, Neoliberalism and the Mystification of Social Divisions in Liverpool, UK,” Surveillance & Society 2:2/3 (2004).
[11] Coleman, “Reclaiming the Streets”: 304.
[12] Bilge Yesil, “Watching Ourselves: Video surveillance, urban space and self-responsibilization,” Cultural Studies 20:4 (2006).

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