London (CNSNews.com) - A UK government decision to install thousands more speed traffic cameras on the country's roads has highlighted privacy campaigners' concerns that law enforcement surveillance practices have turned Britain into the world's "most monitored nation."
Virtually wherever one goes in Britain, cameras are there. Almost every block in every city center is monitored. And outside of the cities, gas station forecourts and roadside eateries have cameras, as have the centers of small towns. Even driving along country roads, drivers occasionally see cameras perched atop tall steel masts, poking above the tree line.
And these are just CCTV (closed circuit television) cameras. Now the government wants to introduce an extra 6,000 roadside speed cameras, which register and photograph vehicles driving above the speed limit, providing evidence leading to a fine.
Automobile organizations' main concern with the traffic camera plan is that the equipment be used to deter speeding, rather than as a source of revenue for the police. But several groups campaigning for more privacy see the decision as part of a broader problem of an over-monitored society.
The justification for the cameras, of course, is their use in deterring and fighting crime. Back in 1993, CCTV footage enabled a riveted nation to watch as two 10-year-olds led a toddler away from a shopping mall, on their way to what became Britain's most disturbing murder in living memory.
In the James Bulger murder case, the footage provided after-the-fact evidence but could not prevent the crime. Police also hope cameras will help deter would-be wrongdoers.
In a case bound to give reckless drivers pause for thought, a woman was last week convicted in court on the basis of CCTV footage which showed her ramming another car out of a parking space she and the other driver had both tried to enter from different directions.
When dissident Irish terrorists planted a car bomb in London two weeks ago, CCTV cameras picked up the suspect leaving the vehicle, providing anti-terrorist police with clues they hope will lead to arrests.
But not everyone believes the crime reduction claims are true. Several years ago, London School of Economics fellow Simon Davies pointed to statistical studies that challenged the view that cameras reduced crime.
He also argued that the installation of cameras was usually followed by a reduction in the numbers of patrolling police in those areas.
"Instead of police being there, on the street, to prevent crime, they are reacting to acts that appear on a screen. While the occasional well-publicized interception may occur, most criminals have escaped long before the police arrive," wrote Davies, who heads an organization called Privacy International.Inappropriate use of data
While some privacy groups do acknowledge the usefulness of cameras for combating crime, the extent to which it's being done in Britain, as particularly concerns about how the gathered information is used, has set off alarm bells.
Roger Bingham of civil rights group Liberty estimates there are between 1.5 and 2.5 million CCTV cameras in action across the country, "but no-one knows exactly how many."
"There's a difficult balance to be struck in the use of CCTV and similar surveillance equipment in public places - between protecting people's safety and protecting their privacy," he said Tuesday.
It also needed to be recognized that data from cameras could be misread. Earlier this year Allan Dunne was arrested for automatic teller machine (ATM) fraud after being picked up on CCTV. It turned up the person who used the ATM just before he did actually committed the crime - but not before Dunne appeared on a national TV crime show as a wanted suspect and was suspended from his job.
Liberty does not have a problem with traffic speed cameras per se, Bingham said. "The test's the same as for any camera system. Is there a clear and specific need, is it proportionate to use cameras, is the data gathered properly controlled?"
Campaigners worry that information gathered from cameras may be used inappropriately. A man caught on CCTV trying to commit suicide has taken legal action after the footage was passed to a TV station, which used it in a documentary without the man's knowledge or agreement.
"We are now arguably the most-monitored nation in the world," Bingham said. "Personal data should be processed fairly and lawfully; people should be told about it or given a chance to consent."
Liberty is agitating for privacy legislation that will protect all personal information.
Although human rights legislation protects to right to protect for privacy, Britain has no specific privacy law, it says in a document outlining a number of legal changes it hopes to see.
"We live in a world where more and more data is collected and stored on every individual; where surveillance techniques are more sophisticated than ever; where CCTV schemes proliferate ...
"As we get better at monitoring people, gathering, storing and networking reams of information, an Act to strengthen and clarify the right to privacy is a necessary counterbalance."