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Britain Is Living Under an Unblinking Eye

Millions of cameras record people going about their everyday business. Authorities say the monitoring helps to deter crime.

September 12, 2004|Jane Wardell | Associated Press Writer

LONDON — The teenagers who stabbed wealthy Joao Da Costa Mitendele to death before burglarizing his home were careful to conceal the crime. They used a pretty girl to gain access to his apartment, where they wore rubber gloves while committing their crimes.

What they hadn't counted on was the phalanx of video cameras that silently watched and recorded them leaving the local subway station, buying those gloves and approaching 45-year-old Mitendele's apartment in suburban north London. The same cameras caught their hasty return journey to the station half an hour later.

The tapes sealed the fate of the so-called "Honey Trap" gang when played in court earlier this year. Seven of the group were convicted of offenses ranging from manslaughter to conspiracy to rob and sent to jail for a minimum of seven years each.

Big Brother is always watching in Britain.

An estimated 4.2 million closed-circuit TV cameras observe people going about their everyday business, from getting on a bus to lining up at the bank to driving around London. It's widely estimated that the average Briton is scrutinized by 300 cameras a day.

The phenomenon is enabled by the arrival of digital video, cheap memory and sophisticated software. And Britain is acknowledged as the world leader of Orwellian surveillance -- perhaps because it has the experience of Irish terrorism, and is on guard for even worse today.

Authorities maintain that the cameras deter crime, and despite some claims to the contrary and the outrage of civil libertarians, the public seems willing to accept the constant monitoring for the greater good.

In the last two months, British police used or publicized CCTV imagery during investigations into a 12-year-old robbing a store at gunpoint, the disappearance of a doctor, attacks by a serial rapist, a father and son hit by a train, laptops stolen from a school and a soccer riot.

Cameras loom over city centers, shopping malls, train stations, university grounds, public parks, beaches, airports, offices and schools.

"Britain, almost without anyone noticing, has become the surveillance capital possibly of the world, certainly of Europe," said Barry Hugill, spokesman for the civil rights group Liberty.

The cameras are concentrated mostly in the main cities. In London alone, train stations contain 1,800 cameras. And there are more than 6,000 cameras in the London Underground -- including at Edgware Station in north London where Mitendele's killers were caught on tape -- and 260 around Parliament.

"The uses are absolutely phenomenal. In some places, there are cameras in schools in the classroom so parents can be shown the footage if a child misbehaves," said Peter Fry, spokesman for the CCTV Users Group.

The ability to store images digitally has played a key role in fostering the industry's growth. Gas stations throughout the country are testing automatic number plate recognition to catch people who fill up but don't pay. The technology is also being used to enforce London's $9 charge for vehicles entering the city center. A police database scans license plate numbers for everything from suspected terrorists to traffic offenders.

Other video-cam networks use software that instructs the cameras to pick up unusual activity.

"They can identify something, like a bag in an airport, that shouldn't be part of the scene," Fry said.

In London's busy Soho district, officials are using wireless CCTV cameras that can be moved in less than an hour, allowing police to quickly target crime hotspots. The portable cameras are also cheaper to install than fixed cameras.

Some critics say the scheme will simply push crime farther out. But Simon Norbury, head of information technology at Westminster City Council, said the cameras' mobility would keep criminals on their toes.

"As the problem moves, we move with it and can blitz it," Norbury said.

In the next phase of the Soho trial, the cameras will be viewed and controlled by a mobile response unit, allowing quick deployment of officers in the event of an incident.

Soho resident Brooke Hartney, 24, a cafe manager, said she felt comforted by the cameras, including a fixed one outside her bedroom window.

"I do feel safer knowing that Big Brother is watching. I'd walk around here at 5 a.m. but I wouldn't out in the suburbs," she said. "I guess I just take the cameras for granted and hope that they are going to help me one way or another if I need it."

An earlier form of CCTV -- back in the day of videotapes monitored, changed and rewound by workers -- was embraced in Britain after two deadly IRA bombings in London in 1992 and 1993. CCTV also caught the 1993 abduction of toddler James Bulger by two 10-year-old boys who were later convicted of his murder.

Some British communities have even asked for cameras to be installed on their streets, seeking to scare off prostitutes and drug dealers.

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