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Caught On Camera: Just How Pervasive is CCTV in the UK?

CCTV in operation sign
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There’s no getting around it, here in the UK we are routinely caught on camera by a lot of CCTV systems, simply by going about our daily lives. It’s no surprise then, that it has always been one of the most controversial subjects when debating invasions of privacy, and the overreach of the state. A few years ago for example, one of the most popular statistics to band about when discussing the subject was that an average citizen was recorded on CCTV 300 times a day on average. Whilst this is still often thrown up in debate, the statistic is- to put it bluntly- completely made up. Times journalist David Aaranovitch managed to trace the figure back to its origin in the book “the Maximum Surveillance Society”, in which author Prof. Clive Norris discussed a “contrived account” of the movements of a theoretical subject between CCTV systems.

Unfortunately the situation is not helped by the fact that gaining accurate figures on CCTV numbers is a practical impossibility. The best current estimate by the BSIA (British Security Industry Authority) hardly eases fears of endemic surveillance, suggesting a figure of 4.9 million cameras in the UK, equivalent to one for every 14 people. This is especially terrifying when combined with reports of the latest technological advances in the security industry, such as Gigapixel sensors, automated facial recognition software and even aerial drones.

One Nation Under CCTV graffiti on a wall
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Thankfully, this image of a far reaching surveillance state is, in some respects at least, an exaggeration. A report by the same industry body indicates that being monitored by an authoritarian state, the vast majority of the cameras are owned and used by private bodies such as shops and businesses, or for home security use. The balance is so one sided, that their research indicates there is 70 private cameras for every one public camera. So far from indiscriminately watching crowds of people in the street scanning for faces, the overwhelming amount of CCTV systems in the UK are simply being used to keep an eye on private property. Of course CCTV systems that record the public should now adhere to the Information Commissioner’s code of practice, irrespective of whether it’s being monitored by a police officer or a newsagent. There is still legitimate concern that a massive number of private systems are in violation of this code, for example with cameras pointed at inappropriate locations, or with insufficient signage. Even so, whilst exact statistics are frustratingly hard to pin down, most experts are in agreement that the UK has a level of CCTV use far higher than most other countries, and we seem to have accepted it as an integral part of modern life. It could just be that as a nation we’re more trusting of authority- it’s certainly the case that Edward Snowden’s revelations of far reaching internet surveillance have caused far less government navel-gazing than in the more Libertarian United States. Maybe the explanation is simply that, as far as security is concerned, an Englishman’s home is his Castle.

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