CCTVOnce again the issue of CCTV has raised it’s head. This time it is as a result of a ‘Big Brother Watch’ press release that, I believe, totally misses the real point.

I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of sympathy for BBW (and don’t put that into Google at work). They are an offshoot of the Tax Payers’ Alliance, an organisation that, as everyone’s mother said, know the price of everything and the value of nothing. For an organisation that really cares about civil liberties I’d suggest you go to Liberty – a truly excellent organisation.

BBW put in Freedom of Information requests to 100 councils asking for the number of cameras and a copy of internal guidance. As far as I can see they don’t seem to have done anything with the guidance they received from Wandsworth or any other borough.

And that’s strange, since they acknowledge in their final report that “there is obviously a role to play for technology in general, and CCTV in particular, in law enforcement and we are not opposed to CCTV per se.”

Yet they put out a press release that condemns councils purely for the number of cameras they have and not how they use them.

It seems to me that one camera improperly used is far more dangerous than hundreds of thousands of well-regulated cameras. Which is why I’m disappointed they didn’t bother to mention that Wandsworth has a strict CCTV code of conduct which prevents use of the cameras on private areas, or that our operators are trained, hold the appropriate SIA qualifications and regularly checked by the Criminal Records Bureau.

I’m also disappointed that they didn’t bother to find out that around half the criminal cases brought in the borough use CCTV evidence, or that they didn’t ask to hear about any of the crimes our operators have prevented, or helped the police rapidly apprehend the suspects through use of the CCTV network.

And because they didn’t enquire, we weren’t able to tell them about the way the police use our CCTV to help them in targeted investigations either by working with our camera operators or putting police officers into our control room.

And it was silent on the fact that Wandsworth is inner London’s safest borough, partly due to intelligent, controlled and pro-active use of CCTV.

CCTV is not the issue, the use to which it is put is the issue. The last time this cropped up and I ended up discussing this with Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti it was clear that the issue is not councils or public authorities that are the problem – they are well regulated and use high quality equipment. The problem are the shops, pubs and clubs that use the equipment without proper regulation, or re-use tapes so often they become useless. But, of course, they aren’t covered by Freedom of Information and don’t make for an easy Daily Mail headline.

CCTVAt the end of last week I found myself at the top of Putney High Street doing an interview for Newsnight about CCTV.

Following a series of freedom of information requests the BBC had discovered that Wandsworth had the highest absolute number of CCTV cameras of any local authority (although the Shetlands are the most surveilled per capita) so I was there defending the council against the inevitable charges of Big Brother.

Now you might assume I’m anti-CCTV. I’ve posted on civil liberty issues in the past and surely this follows through with CCTV… well, yes and no.

It might be there is some cognitive dissonance at play here, with me trying to reconcile a civil libertarian streak with a portfolio of hundreds of cameras. But while I think there can be serious issues with CCTV, I think that Wandsworth are getting it right.

Many of the arguments are around issues like privacy. I’d argue it’s hard to be private when you are walking along a busy high street. If you are in plain view, it doesn’t make much difference whether you can be seen by a man on the other side of the road, or by a man operating a camera on the other side of the road.

In fact, when you start examining the argument it is not the CCTV itself that is the problem, but to what use that CCTV is put.

And this is the real nub of the matter. It is, frankly, irrelevant how many cameras there are in Wandsworth. What is relevant is the way we use them, and also the way we don’t use them.

CCTV is a tool. Nothing more, nothing less. In some places it is appropriate to use it, in others it is not. So in Wandsworth we have CCTV installed in town centres, but have a policy not to install in residential areas, and have a very strict code of practice regulating how we use it where installed – you’ll never see a Wandsworth recording featured on Police, Camera, Action.

In return we have an incredibly valuable resource. Around half of all prosecutions brought by the police use CCTV footage as evidence. And it helps beyond crime. The council’s well trained CCTV operators have found lost children and prevented suicides.

My concern with CCTV is that far too many people see it as a panacea. So, for example, if there is a problem with anti-social behaviour residents assume installing CCTV will solve it. In fact, it’s only likely to move it, meaning that someone else will start facing exactly the same problems. Whereas there are probably all sorts of other things that would deal with it. The police might patrol and area, the council’s youth services could engage with youths, it might just be that a little mutual understanding and dialogue will make all the problems disappear overnight.

And at its worst it stops people taking responsibility for their own lives. For example, we’ve been asked to install CCTV in a residential area to prevent burglary, not because there was a particular problem, but as a preventative measure. Naturally, we offered the usual security advice (there is a lot you can do, very cheaply, to secure your home) but it is concerning that people’s first thought was not to fit window locks or a London bar to their door, but to request their area be covered by a CCTV scheme.

And that is my biggest fear for CCTV. Wandsworth has shown that with robust controls CCTV can be a valuable tool in the fight against crime and making Wandsworth the safest inner London borough. We need to make sure that the price we pay isn’t a loss of personal responsibility.

What do you think?  Do we have too much CCTV?  Or don’t we have enough?