Lentis/Video Surveillance in Great Britain

Currently in Britain, video surveillance is used by government agencies to monitor people, traffic, and public areas. Proponents affirm that mass video surveillance helps to decrease crime rates while opponents claim that the technology is a violation of personal rights.

CCTV Warning Sign

Early HistoryEdit

Close-Circuit-Television (CCTV) systems were initially used in the 1940s as monitoring systems for German missile launches. [1] Since then, CCTV systems were adopted by other military in Europe as a way to monitor bases and watch for nefarious behavior. In 1967, following the invention of the video cassette recorder, it became possible to record and review surveillance footage.

Adoption of Video SurveillanceEdit

There were four key stages that led to the eventual ubiquity of CCTV in Great Britain: private diffusion, institutional diffusion, limited diffusion into public spaces, and ubiquity. [2]

Private DiffusionEdit

In the late 1960s and early 1970s following the release of the Photoscan CCTV, CCTV systems were popularized by store owners, primarily bank managers who used them to monitor people in and outside individual branches. This success led to and increased the use of CCTVs as private security systems for households. [1] The initial adoption of CCTV by private businesses and individuals represented the private diffusion of the video surveillance technology. [2]

Institutional DiffusionEdit

The technology for the implementation of mass surveillance using CCTV systems existed since the 1970s; however, the widespread use of these systems was delayed by privacy concerns. [1] The claims of violation of civil liberties were also supported by practical difficulties such as cost. To establish a CCTV system in a small town could cost over one hundred thousand pounds. This, accompanied by the high maintenance cost of these systems made the early use of CCTV in mass surveillance impractical. [3] However, in 1975, the London Transport system, in an attempt to decrease attacks on their employees, established the first permanent CCTV system. Nine Years after the establishment of the London Transport System CCTV, Scotland Yard began to link the feeds from several establish systems in order to observe protests and rallies in central London. The use of CCTV by the London transportation system was the beginning of the Institutional diffusion stage in use of CCTV for mass surveillance. [3]

Limited Diffusion into Public SpaceEdit

Limited diffusion into public space refers to the installation of CCTVs in appropriated public locations. In 1984, there was an attempted attack on the prime minister by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) at the Conservatives Party Conference. The following year, the conference was set to take place in Bournemouth and in an attempt to increase safety, the Bournemouth town council approved a CCTV system that was established within the city-center. By 1991, 10 cities in Britain had CCTV systems in public spaces. [2]

Final Steps to UbiquityEdit

Three major events contributed to the acceleration of video surveillance adoption and its eventual ubiquity in Britain. In 1993, a toddler by the name of Jamie Bulger was led away from the Merseyside Shopping mall by two 10 year old assailants. The video clips from the mall’s CCTV system helped to apprehend the culprits. In 1993, the Bishopsgate hotel in London was bombed by members of the IRA, in the wake of this attack, a closed CCTV system known as the “ring of steel” composed of about 500,000 CCTV cameras was established in London. [2]. Lastly, the crime rate in London was on a rise from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. The British Government increased manned law enforcement expenditure by 43 percent. The influx of money did not help, recorded criminal offenses continued to rise, and reached 5.6 million in 1992. [1] These three events marked the beginning of the ubiquity of CCTV in Great Britain. Following these events, the Home Secretary Michael Howard established the “City Challenge Competition.” This was an allocation of 2 million pounds of government money to help fund CCTV systems in several cities and towns. By 1998, the “City Challenge Competition” had a budget of 85 million pounds. [2] Between 1994 and 2004, 250 million pounds in government funds were spend on CCTV systems. In the same period of time, the total CCTV expenditure in both the private and public sectors was 4.5 billion pounds. [4]


Forms of SurveillanceEdit

Surveillance technologies take many forms. While much attention focuses on advanced techniques of surveillance, ordinary forms of surveillance include simple observation, eavesdropping, and following by law enforcements and individuals. A familiar form of non-technical surveillance is the use of breathalyzer on suspected drunk drivers. Advanced forms of surveillance include telecommunication surveillance, which is the monitoring, data-mining, and tapping of landline and mobile services.

Video Surveillance TechnologyEdit

Modern Surveillance cameras automated by computer programs

The technology for video surveillance in particular has existed since the advent of cameras, which were initially used to record facial and physical characteristics of criminals. Closed-circuit Television (CCTV) refers to the use of video cameras to transfer signal to specific end point, such as monitors and recording device. In Great Britain, there was a recent surge of CCTV installation from the early 1990s to prevent terrorism and crime.[5] Recent digitization technologies have enabled increasingly automated use of CCTV such as in the identification of license plate of vehicles and in road speed enforcements.[5] CCTV surveillance also allows the recording of surveillance footage in large databases such as the Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) data center. These data can be analyzed to identify people and suspicious behaviors through algorithm surveillance, in which concerning patterns are ‘mined’ out of the databases and analyzed.

Current StatusEdit


It is estimated that there are around 5.4 million CCTV cameras in the UK, one for every 14 people.[6] Over 750,000 CCTVs are located in “sensitive locations” such as hospitals and schools, with up to 373,000 cameras in public school, 159,000 in both health centers and restaurants.[7] An individual may be captured by over 300 separate cameras on an average day.[6] CCTVs are used extensively in crime prevention; in 2009 over 95% of Scotland Yard murder cases used CCTV footage as evidence.[7] The dramatic rise in CCTV use can be seen in traffic surveillance, where in 1996 the ANPR record contained only 300,000 instances of speed violation compared to 2 million recorded in 2004.[7] Today, large networks of HD CCTV cameras with plate reading capability provide 24/7 coverage of major and local roadways.

British Video Surveillance LawsEdit

Some examples of current U.K. government laws that regulate the use of video surveillance include:

  • Intelligence Services Act (ISA) allows interference and modification to CCTV usage in the interest of UK national security.[8]
  • The Data Protection Act 1998 required legal basis for operation of CCTV in public spaces.
  • European Convention on Human Rights was incorporate into British law in October 2000, establishing the right to private life.[3]
  • The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) makes traffic data available to UK law enforcement upon request.[8]

In Popular CultureEdit

Video Surveillance Graffiti in UK

The various public view points on video surveillance can be captured through the popular culture in the United Kingdom.

  • George Orwell’s critically acclaimed novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, portrays a dystopian surveillance society where surveillance is conducted by informants and two-way “telescreens” similar to video surveillance technology. Orwell’s book highlights the privacy issues that can result from heavy use of surveillance.
  • Big Brother, a British reality TV show based on monitoring contestants in isolated living conditions, takes its name from George Orwell’s novel.
  • Street graffiti on buildings and road sides in the UK expresses discontent for the level of surveillance in the country.


Mass surveillance has always been a controversial topic in U.K. The British government claims that mass surveillance was implemented mainly to protect the society from terrorism and crime. However, a functional mass surveillance system would inevitably infringe civil rights and induce fear among civilians. Supporters of mass surveillance have faith in CCTV’s power to eliminate terrorism and crimes. However, according to Privacy International’s survey, 72% of the public believe the cameras can be abused by the wrong people, 39% felt people in charge of the system couldn’t be trusted to use CCTV only for public good and 37% felt that “in the future, cameras will be used by the government to control people.[9]


Supporters of CCTV surveillance systems believe that CCTV can effectively protect society from terrorists and criminals. To address the impact of CCTV surveillance on civil privacy, supporters commonly make the argument that one has nothing to fear if he or she is doing everything right.[3]



Privacy International, an organization seeking to protect human right and privacy, concluded that an “anti-privacy pathology” exists within the British Government.[10] Civil rights activists often compare the CCTV system in Britain to the “Big Brother Surveillance” in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-four”.

1984 by George Orwell

Critics are concerned about the “massive scope for abuse” of the data collected by massive surveillance system because of the government’s loose legislation and lack of expertise in protecting private data. In the beginning, only few law enforcement organizations such as police and intelligence agency could request permission to access personal and public CCTV footage. More organizations can request CCTV footages, many of whom have little experience handling such confidential information.[11] To address the illegal access to CCTV recordings, the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Information Commissioner’s Office led to legislative restriction on the use of CCTV and required registration for all CCTV systems.


Aside from the infringement on personal privacy, many critics think mass surveillance is a very effective form of social control by the government. Insufficient regulation of these surveillance activities will inevitably lead to the abuse of such powers.[12]


Many opponents claim that the mass surveillance in England is overabundant, given the cost of implementation, CCTV coverage in the country, and rates of growth in surveillance cases.[13] According to the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, a crime reduction charity, the effectiveness of CCTV on crime rates is often overrated and most evaluations done on CCTV-crime rates are unreliable. Researchers argue that it’s very difficult to measure how much “crime” is deterred, because the crimes that haven’t happened can not be measured directly.[14] Testing the effect of CCTV on crimes required monitoring the areas studied carefully and analyzing the crime statistics in detail; very few such evaluations have been carried out and most studies have only looked at the short term effects of CCTV.[15]

One alternative explanation of the low crime rate in areas with high CCTV coverage is that CCTVs displace crime rather than reduce it. Scholars argue that although CCTVs can have some effect on crimes those effects will wear off soon. Due to displacement, CCTV cameras push crimes into adjacent areas where relatively few cameras are installed.[14] Since the cameras are mostly installed in high value commercial areas, CCTV is not likely to help prevent crimes in the society as a whole. [9] Scholars suggest that because of the debatable effects of CCTV on crimes, the British government should not focus its budget on video surveillance. Instead, more effort should be put into proven crime-fighting measures, such as better street lighting. [16]


  1. a b c d The History of CCTV in the UK, http://www.srmti.com/news/the-history-of-cctv-in-the-uk-10079/, retrieved November 20, 2013 
  2. a b c d e McCahill, M,; Norris, C,; Wood, D, (2004), "Editorial. The Growth of CCTV: a global perspective on the international diffusion of video surveillance in publicly accessible space", Surveillance & Society 2, http://library.queensu.ca/ojs/index.php/surveillance-and-society/article/view/3369/3332 
  3. a b c d McCahill, M,; Norris, C, (2002), CCTV in Britain, http://www.urbaneye.net/results/ue_wp3.pdf 
  4. CCTV, http://www.politics.co.uk/reference/cctv, retrieved November 20, 2013 
  5. a b Norris, C,; Armstrong, G, (2000), "CCTV and the Social Structuring of Surveillnace", Crime Prevention Studies: 157-178, http://graduateinstitute.ch/files/live/sites/iheid/files/sites/political_science/shared/political_science/8787/ellie%201%2006-NorrisArmstrong-Social%20Structure%20of%20Surveillance.pdf 
  6. a b Tyler, R, (2006), "Britain is video surveillance capital of the world", World Socialist Website, http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2006/12/cctv-d06.html, retrieved December 3, 2013 
  7. a b c Barrett, D, (2013), "One surveillance camera for every 11 people in Britain says CCTV survey", The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/10172298/One-surveillance-camera-for-every-11-people-in-Britain-says-CCTV-survey.html, retrieved December 3, 2013 
  8. a b Wood, D, (2006), "A Report on the Surveillance Society", Surveillance Studies Network 
  9. a b Privacy International (2002), CCTV Frequently Asked Questions, https://www.privacyinternational.org/blog/cctv-frequently-asked-questions 
  10. Davies, Simon, (2002), UK singled out for criticism over protection of privacy, http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2002/sep/05/security.humanrights 
  11. BBC, (2002), 'Massive abuse' of privacy feared, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2038036.stm 
  12. Kailin, Mark, (2013), From Spying on "Terrorists Abroad" to Suppressing Domestic Dissent: When We Become the Hunted, http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/18292-from-spying-on-terrorists-abroad-to-using-massive-surveillance-to-suppress-domestic-dissent-when-we-become-the-hunted 
  13. Porter, Henry, (2009), Paranoid, suspicion, obsessive surveillance, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1205676/Paranoid-suspicion-obsessive-surveillance--land-liberty-destroyed-stealth.html 
  14. a b Cobb, R, (1997), CCTV - Big Brother in Bradford, http://www.1in12.com/publications/cctv/bigbro.html 
  16. Ward, Kevin, (2002), Video surveillance debate heats up