State Surveillance in the UK: nowhere to hide

French philosopher Michel Foucault noted that in a surveillance society, any surveillance changes the behaviour of not just those who are being watched, but also those who are doing the watching. cctvGreat Britain is apparently the most surveilled nation on Earth. A 2006 report estimated that there were more than 4.2 million closed circuit televisions (CCTVs) monitoring the populace and that on average a person would be filmed by approximately 300 different cameras per day as they moved through London. Knowing this, a couple of gangsters who recently pulled off England’s greatest jewel heist went to great lengths to alter their appearance, disguising themselves with Mission Impossible style latex faces.

As the heist and its aftermath progressed, the CCTVs did indeed do their jobs, with much of what took place that day being captured on film. It was a well thought out plan, in that it attempted to turn the surveillance system against itself – the police would be looking for completely the wrong (non-existent) villains when they distributed the captured video images to their wider networks and to the media. Where it fell apart for the crooks, however, was that make-up artist who made the masks recognised his own handiwork. This gave the police a break in the case. Rack one up for the surveillance system, as it did end up working successfully.

The argument for this “Big Brother “approach to surveillance is, of course, that it reduces crime, in that if people feel that they are under observation, then they are more likely to control their own behaviour.  But does it make really make people safer?

Well, the answer to that is, it all depends.

You see, the system seems to work well until it is the police themselves who come under investigation or behave improperly. When such investigations into the police arise and the hunt for video evidence begins, odd things seem happen to technology: perfectly functioning CCTVs are now said to be not working, to have been turned off, to not have tapes in the machines, to have tapes go missing. In other words, technical hitches and carelessness abound.

This happened recently, as reported in the Guardian, in the case of Sean Rigg, a musician who died in police custody at the Brixton police station. 

Sean Rigg's Family

Sean Rigg's Family

The Rigg family were understandably anxious to discover the circumstances surrounding how and why Sean died and hoped that CCTV could provide them with some answers. The station tapes were seized by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) investigating the death.  Not long after this, the IPCC told the family that the cage area of the station where Sean died was not adequately covered by CCTV and thus could shed no real light on what happened:

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), which is expected to complete its investigation next month, initially told Rigg’s family that only CCTV footage seized from inside the station showed the cage where he died – and the cameras involved had limited views.

Not accepting this explanation, the family responded in the following way:

Convinced there were more outdoor cameras nearby, Rigg’s family demanded an audit of security cameras at the station. IPCC investigators then conceded there were more cameras overlooking the cage. But two weeks later, they said they had tried to obtain the tapes and found the recorders had not been working for three months.

But this assertion was contradicted by technicians who had serviced the cameras nine days earlier and found them all to be working. Not surprisingly, then:

Rigg’s family suspect a cover-up. The IPCC’s claim about CCTV contradicts repeated assurances given to the family by a senior police officer two days after Rigg died. Suzanne Wallace, a chief inspector who was in charge of the station, was caught on tape saying CCTV was working and recordings had been seized.

de menezes

De Menezes

These sorts of excuses might be more believable if they hadn’t been heard before. But they have, most notably following the ‘execution’ of Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes by the British police at the Stockwell tube station in 2005. De Menezes was shot seven times in the head after he was mistakenly identified as a terrorist. The following is a summation of key points from newspaper reports and evidence presented at the 2008 Crown inquiry into the killing; it shows some disturbing similarities to the Rigg case. Once again, there were reports of faulty equipment and tapes not being replaced:

  • No CCTV footage was available from the Stockwell station, as recording media had not been replaced after being removed for examination after the previous day’s attempted bombings.
  • Faulty cameras on the platform.
  • CCTV footage was available for the ticket area, but that there was a problem with the platform coverage. No useful CCTV footage from the platform or the train carriage.
  • From a police report: “It has been established that there has been a technical problem with the CCTV equipment on the relevant platform and no footage exists.”
  • No footage from CCTV in the carriage where Menezes was shot.
  •  “Although there was on-board CCTV in the train, due to previous incidents, the hard drive had been removed and not replaced.”

And once again, much of this evidence was contradicted by Tube Lines consortium those who maintain platform CCTV system:

  • Unofficial sources from inside the company insisted that the cameras were in working order.
  • It was also reported that London Underground sources insisted that at least three of the four cameras trained on the Stockwell Tube platform were in full working order.
  • It rejected suggestions that the cameras had not been fitted with new tapes after police took away footage from the previous day, 21 July, when suspects in the failed bombings caught trains there.

While it all sounds a mite suspicious, I’m not about to make a judgement on whether the IPCC and/or the police are involved in a cover-up or not; to be frank, I don’t know one way or the other. That isn’t why I have presented the above material. What I do want to say is this: if you set yourself up as a surveillance society, if you create a discourse of its benefits  and if you show the efficiency of such a system (as was the case in the jewel heist), then you create a belief in the mind of the public  that the system will work effectively for them when they need it.

But when the system fails, and particularly when it involves police, then accusations of  cover-ups and of being a police state will be inevitable. And the more surveillance there is, the more the public will demand an answer to that age-old question: “Who watches the watchmen?”

Watchmen symbol


5 Responses

  1. […] from the Metropolitan Police on the use of Closed Circuit TV (CCTV) confirms the point I made here in an earlier post, namely that the public “have a high expectation of CCTV” and that […]

  2. […] power. Where abuse by authorities of their power occurs, CCTV footage invariable goes missing, is corrupted, or the cameras are found not to have been recording; footage that does emerge of crime by […]

  3. Awesome blog!

    I thought about starting my own blog too but I’m just too lazy so, I guess Ill just have to keep checking yours out.

  4. […] 17, 2009 by Duffster We’ve looked at the prevalence of CCTV in the UK on a couple of occasions (here and here), where despite the large number of cameras, they aren’t always effective in […]

  5. […] where abuse by authorities of their power occurs, CCTV footage invariable goes missing, is corrupted, or the cameras are found not to have been recording; and as the G20 has shown us, footage that […]

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