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'Spy' cameras vs villains in Britain

By AL WEBB, United Press International   |   March 8, 2002 at 3:18 PM   |   Comments

LONDON, March 8 (UPI) -- Big brother is big business in the battle against crime in Britain, but photo-shy villains have developed a bag of new tricks to elude the gaze of thousands of surveillance cameras that now dot its cities, towns and villages.

With 1.5 million closed-circuit television systems watching its streets, office buildings, schools, shopping centers and roads, Britain is one of the most closely monitored nations on the planet, and the government is spending another $115 million for more TV eyes.

But crime is soaring across the country. In London, a city of 8 million people, murder is going on at a record pace. Street robbery, the very crime that CCTV is supposed to be best at deterring, will reach 50,000 this year.

The problem, one exasperated police source told United Press International, is that "the TV cameras can't be everywhere. There are hundreds of thousands of nooks and crannies left, everywhere you look, and this is where criminals are increasingly operating. And when a camera shows up, they move elsewhere."

Many of the villains are adapting. Some are targeting luxury cars on the move so that any view a TV camera gets of them is fleeting at best. Others conceal their street muggings by grabbing their victims in a clinch that, on CCTV, looks like nothing more than a romantic hug.

Police say criminals discouraged by the prospect of an unwanted TV appearance in London or other cities take to commuting to the countryside where prospective victims are more trusting and the pickings are easier.

"There is more security-consciousness now in urban areas, which makes it less easy for the thief, than in the countryside where, generally speaking, people have tended to be more lax," said Nicholas Bond, a spokesman for NFU Mutual, an insurance company specializing in rural communities.

"There is a feeling that opportunist crime is moving out toward the rural areas," said Ian Fraser of CGNU, one of Britain's largest household contents insurers.

The British government is convinced that TV surveillance will remain a major anti-crime weapon and recently announced that it is financing the installation of more than 200 closed-circuit monitoring systems, from London to provincial cities and towns.

"CCTV has repeatedly proved its effectiveness in the fight against crime and the fear of crime," said John Denham, a minister in the Home Office. "Knowing that there is an extra set of eyes watching over their communities helps to reassure people that they will be safe."

Experts are convinced that more advanced technology is making CCTV an even more valuable tool.

In the city of Hull, for instance, a test project in one crime-ridden area is based on a new, Internet-based CCTV system using tiny cameras disguised in street lamps or concealed on buildings to transmit digital pictures to a monitoring center around the clock. Authorities said an independent evaluation of the system showed that in the first five months of operation, car crime in the area was down 80 percent, shoplifting was down 69 percent, robbery was down 68 percent, burglary was down 49 percent and violent crime is down 30 percent.

"As the system is digital," said project manager John Marshall, "there are no video tapes, and images are transferred instantly from camera to computer, where the data can be transferred to police stations by the Internet."

Other local governments are interested in the idea, but cost could become a major deterrent. The system in the Hull trial cost an estimated $570,000 for protection of 3,200 residents.

Meanwhile, other areas are reporting less-than-spectacular success with big brother technology. In London's Newham district, 300 cameras are dotted around the central business area yet street robberies increased by one-fifth in 2001 from the previous year, and car thefts climbed by 3.6 percent.

"Although CCTV cameras might be useful within a broadly based anti-crime strategy," said one specialist, "turning the nation's city and town streets into seamless surveillance zones is itself no substitute for proper policing."

A three-year study commissioned by the British government and conducted by the Scottish Center for Criminology suggested that "spy" cameras had little or no effect on crime. It concluded that "reductions were noted in certain categories, but there was no evidence to suggest that the cameras had reduced crime overall."

"The cameras appeared to have little effect on clear-up rates for crimes and offenses" the report said.

The findings "have taken the stardust out of our eyes about this new technology," said Jason Dittion, a criminologist and the study's main author.

CCTV's defenders point out that it was such technology that recorded the abduction of 2-year-old James Bulger in a Liverpool shopping center by a pair of 10-year-old boys who later bludgeoned him to death. The TV evidence was key to their arrest and conviction.

At the other end of the scale, police forces across the land are using surveillance cameras to "capture" and convict thousands of speeders and other traffic violators -- and the local government in Merton, in south London, is using its 60 CCTV surveillance cameras to zero in on litterbugs.

The use of surveillance cameras in policing has, perhaps inevitably, attracted frowns from civil liberties groups, who see them as an infringement on individual rights.

"I don't think anyone has really thought through the implications of all this," said Simon Davies, of the civil rights watchdog group Privacy International.

"What tends to happen is you start penalizing extreme or unusual behavior, which leads to social exclusion," Davies said. "And it won't be just criminals. A safer and more efficient Britain is not necessarily a better society."

The police see life under the camera's view somewhat differently.

"When cameras are properly targeted," said Graeme Gerrard, a spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers, "they can deter offenders, reduce the level of crime and increase the feeling of safety for those using our public spaces."

The surveillance camera as a public amenity is here to stay, but the arguments about usefulness, legality and ethicality have only just begun.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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