AustLII [Home] [Help] [Databases] [World Law] [Feedback] PLPR Home Page

Privacy Law and Policy Reporter

[Global Search] [PLPR Search] [PLPR Homepage] [Contents] [Help]


Video surveillance

David Banisar and Simon Davies

In recent years, the use of video surveillance cameras (also called closed circuit television, or CCTV) to monitor public and private spaces throughout the world has grown to unprecedented levels. The leader in this trend is the United Kingdom, where it is estimated that between 150 and 300 million pounds per year is now spent on a surveillance industry involving an estimated 200,000 cameras monitoring public spaces.[1] Most towns and cities are moving to CCTV surveillance of public areas, housing estates, carparks and public facilities. Growth in the market is estimated at 15 to 20 per cent annually. Many central business districts in Britain are now covered by surveillance camera systems involving a linked system of cameras with full pan, tilt, zoom and infrared capacity. Their use on private property is also becoming popular.[2]

The CCTV trend is not confined to Britain. CCTV activity in Norway has prompted specific inclusion of such surveillance in the Data Protection Act. Meanwhile, CCTV activity in monitoring public squares has grown markedly in North America and Australia. In New York City, the NYCLU Surveillance Camera Project identified 2397 cameras in Manhattan.[3] In Singapore, they are widely employed for traffic enforcement and to prevent littering.

These systems involve increasingly sophisticated technology. Features include night vision, computer-assisted operation, and motion detection facilities that allow the operator to instruct the system to go on red alert when anything moves in view of the cameras. Camera systems increasingly employ bulletproof casing and automated self-defence mechanisms. The clarity of the pictures is usually excellent, with many systems being able to read a cigarette packet at 100 metres. The systems can often work in pitch black, bringing images up to daylight level. The technologies are converging with sophisticated software programs that are capable of automated recognition of faces, crowd behaviour analysis and, in certain environments, intimate scanning of the area between skin surface and clothes. In Newham, UK, a facial recognition system that can scan faces against a database of millions of photographs in seconds is already in place to identify people ‘of interest’. The US Government is funding ‘passive millimetre wave technology’ that allows police to peer under clothing to see if a person is carrying contraband or weapons. The power and capabilities of cameras will continually increase, while their cost and size will decrease. It is reasonable to assume that covert visual surveillance will eventually be ubiquitous in some environments.

Some observers believe this phenomenon is dramatically changing the nature of cities. The technology has been described as the ‘fifth utility’.[4] CCTV is being integrated into the urban environment in much the same way as the electricity supply and the telephone network were in the first half of the century. CCTV is profoundly changing the nature of the urban environment, and is now an important part of the core management of cities. Visual surveillance is becoming a fixed component in the design of modern urban centres, new housing areas, public buildings and even the road system. CCTV images may in the future be viewed as just one more type of necessary data, and considered a ‘value added’ product.

Their use has come under greater criticism recently and recent research by the Scottish Centre for Criminology found that the cameras did not reduce crime or improve public perception of crime problems.[5]

Researchers at the University of Hull, UK found that the cameras were frequently used for other reasons. Forty percent of people were targeted for ‘no obvious reason’, mainly ‘on the basis of belonging to a particular or subcultural group’. ‘Black people were between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half times more likely to be surveilled than one would expect from their presence in the population.’

Thirty percent of targeted surveillances on black people were protracted, lasting nine minutes or more, compared with just 10 percent on white people.

People were selected primarily on the basis of ‘the operators’ negative attitudes towards male youth in general and black male youth in particular. ... [I]f a youth was categorised as a “scrote” they were subject to prolonged and intensive surveillance.’

Those deemed to be ‘out of time and out of place’ with the commercial image of city centre streets were subjected to prolonged surveillance:

Thus drunks, beggars, the homeless [and] street traders were all subject to intense surveillance ... Finally, anyone who directly challenged, by gesture or deed, the right of the cameras to monitor them was especially subject to targeting.[6]

Campaigns have been started in several countries to stop their spread.[7] In 1997 and 1999, the city of Oakland in California voted to reject their use.[8]

There has also been greater activity by data protection commissioners as the technology merges with information systems and contains information on identifiable individuals. In July 2000, the UK Data Protection Commissioner issued a code of practice on the use of CCTV. The code sets out guidelines for the operators of CCTV systems and makes clear their obligations under the recently implemented Data Protection Act 1998.[9]

David Banisar and Simon Davies are the principal organisers of Privacy International.


[1] House of Lords, Science and Technology Committee, Fifth report, Digital images as evidence 3 February 1998, London.

[2] Graham S, Brooks J, and Heery D, Towns on the Television: Closed Circuit TV in British Towns and Cities Centre for Urban Technology, University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

[3] NYCLU Surveillance Camera Project <http://www.nyclu.org/surveillance.html>.

[4] Graham S, ‘The Fifty Utility’ Index on Censorship issue 3, 2000 at <http://www.indexoncensorship.org/300/gra.htm>.

[5] Home page at <http://www.scotcrim.u-net.com/researchc.htm>.

[6] Norris C and Armstrong G, The Unforgiving Eye: CCTV surveillance in public space Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice at Hull University at <http://merlin.legend.org.uk/~brs/archive/stories97/Suspects.html>.

[7] See Privacy International, CCTV pages at <http://www.privacyinternational.org/issues/cctv/index.html>; Watching Them, Watching Us — UK CCTV Surveillance Regulation Campaign at <http://www.spy.org.uk/>.

[8] ACLU, ‘Second Attempt Fails to Install Spy Cams on Oakland Streets’,

<http://www.aclunc.org/aclunews/news499/oaklandcams.html?video#first_hit>.

[9] See <http://wood.ccta.gov.uk/dpr/dpdoc.nsf>.


[Global Search] [PLPR Search] [PLPR Homepage] [Contents] [Help]