To passing tourists, catching yet another government poster apprising you of electronic surveillance looming in the distance, the initials “CCTV” can be oddly reminiscent of “CCCP,” the Cyrillicized abbreviation for the U.S.S.R. CCTV is the United Kingdom’s ubiquitous acronym. Nobody needs to be told what it stands for. It accompanies you as you make your way to work, whether by car, bus, train, or taxi. And it’s there waiting for you at the end of your shift, as you go to buy your groceries or head to the movies. Last year, when David Davis resigned from the shadow cabinet because of the remarkably bipartisan insouciance about the “erosion of fundamental British freedoms,” he said there was “a CCTV camera for every 14 citizens.” The British, according to another well-retailed line, are apparently the most video-monitored people in the world other than the North Koreans. In an aside in his new novel The Defector, the American author Daniel Silva lays out the background:
“ ‘So how are the British so certain about what happened?’
“ ‘Their little electronic helpers were watching.’
“Navot was referring to CCTV, the ubiquitous network of 10,000 closed-circuit television cameras that gave London’s Metropolitan Police the ability to monitor activity, criminal or otherwise, on virtually every street in the British capital. A recent government study had concluded that the system had failed in its primary objective: deterring crime and apprehending criminals. Only three per cent of street robberies were solved using CCTV technology, and crime rates in London were soaring. Embarrassed police officials explained away the failure by pointing out that the criminals had accounted for the cameras by adjusting their tactics, such as wearing masks and hats to conceal their identities. Apparently, no one in charge had considered that possibility before spending hundreds of millions of pounds and invading the public’s privacy on an unprecedented scale. The subjects of the United Kingdom, birthplace of Western democracy, now resided in an Orwellian world where their every movement was watched over by the eyes of the state.”
All true, except for the “10,000” cameras, which is certainly an underestimate. By some calculations, they’re now approaching five million (public and private) across the country. On this side of the Atlantic, closed-circuit television is mostly confined to banks and a select few other locations, and they still look like cameras. Not on the streets of London, where ever smaller boxes mounted ever more discreetly to the clutter of curbside signage betray no clue as to their purpose. Not that the authorities are embarrassed by them. Au contraire, notices advertising that you’re in their reassuring presence are almost as frequent as the cameras. Strolling down Piccadilly the other day, I lost count of the number of signs emblazoned “WESTMINSTER CCTV: KEEPING OUR STREETS SAFE,” complete with a cute little CCTV logo that they paid some marketing firm to hire some graphic artist to come up with. Any day now the government will surely unveil some lovable anthropomorphized cartoon figure—Carlton Camera or some such—who’ll appear in public service announcements saying he’s just popped up to keep an eye on you.
But perhaps I overestimate the modern security state’s need to soft-soap its purposes. A couple of years back, London Transport unveiled a poster called “SECURE BENEATH THE WATCHFUL EYES” showing the iconic red double-decker bus making its way across a Thames bridge protected by a sky filled with giant all-seeing eyes. “CCTV & Metropolitan Police on buses,” explained the caption, “are just two ways we’re making your journey home more secure.” The draftsmanship was beautiful, the image a strange conflation of classic London Underground poster art and ’tween-wars Continental Fascist propaganda. You would have thought that anyone who had . . . well, not read but was just dimly aware of the vague gist of Orwell’s 1984 could not possibly have approved such a campaign. But London Transport did, and Londoners more or less accepted it.
If you’re a novelist, it’s impossible to write a story set in Britain without taking CCTV into account. In his new book The Ghosts of Belfast, Stuart Neville writes of his protagonist:
“The truth was he’d slept very little the previous night. It took him an hour and a half to work his way through the streets, avoiding CCTV cameras on his way home.”
Easier said than done. Daniel Silva captures the scale of the enterprise:
“ ‘Were you able to trace the car’s movements with CCTV?’
“ ‘It turned left into Edgware Road, then made a right at St. John’s Wood Road. Eventually, it entered an underground parking garage in Primrose Hill, where it remained for 57 minutes . . . After leaving the garage, it headed northeast to Brentwood, a suburb just outside the M25. At which point, it slipped out of CCTV range and disappeared from sight.’ ”
Did you tell your wife you were kept late at the office but you were in fact parked outside your mistress’s flat at 27b Lucknow Gardens? There’s an electronic record of that somewhere in a government database. Maybe that’s nothing to worry about, maybe no one will ever have cause to dig it out. But it’s in there.
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