Big Debate: CCTV cameras - Tackling crime or invading our privacy?

A generic picture of two CCTV cameras on the side of a building in central London.

A generic picture of two CCTV cameras on the side of a building in central London. - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

The number of CCTV cameras being installed across the capital is growing because councils are increasingly seeing them as a useful tool in the fight against fight crime. But some organisations argue they infringe our right to privacy. We asked the Mayor of Tower Hamlets and a volunteer at a civil liberties organisation for their views.

Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Mayor Lutfur Rahman

Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Mayor Lutfur Rahman - Credit: Rehan Jamil

Tahmeena Baz

Tahmeena Bax, a volunteer at the Newham Monitoring Project

Tahmeena Bax, a volunteer at the Newham Monitoring Project - Credit: Archant

Volunteer at the Newham Monitoring Project

Whilst most of us at Newham Monitoring Project (NMP) would agree that safety is a priority, we have doubts that increased CCTV is the way to deliver this.

The cost to the community, both financial and in terms of intrusion, is potentially high. The question, therefore, is do the benefits outweigh the risks? Through our work at a community level, we come across divided views.

Support for cameras tends to come from those frustrated with inaction over antisocial behaviour. However, Newham already has 959 cameras – more than Birmingham and Liverpool combined.

Despite this high figure, of the 32,809 crimes recorded in Newham in 2012, less than one per cent of arrests resulted from this network.

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These statistics suggest that CCTV is neither an effective deterrent nor a quick-fix solution.

Any decision to extend the surveillance of citizens erodes the basic right to privacy.

A common argument in favour of CCTV is: ‘If you are doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about.’

However, this does not answer the question: ‘If you are doing nothing wrong, why are you being watched at all?’

Some may argue cameras don’t discriminate in whom they film.

However, at NMP, we receive frequent complaints that cameras are installed in areas where communities already feel unfairly targeted by police or authorities and CCTV only serves to exasperate tensions and increase alienation.

Our experience in supporting victims of crime highlights the false sense of security CCTV provides; footage is frequently too poor to identify anything useful; police are often too slow to collect CCTV (by which time the footage has been wiped); or, in cases where people allege misconduct by the authorities, footage has sometimes mysteriously disappeared.

Improving safety requires addressing root problems by strengthening communities, not putting them under surveillance.

Lutfur Rahman

Mayor of Tower Hamlets

In Tower Hamlets, the council has been making effective use of CCTV to tackle crime and make the borough a safer place to live, work and visit.

Live 24-hour monitoring of the CCTV system by council operators resulted in 837 proactive arrests in 2012, and 907 in 2011.

A proactive arrest happens when a council CCTV operator either alerts the police to an incident, or leads the police to a suspect after hearing a call out on the police radio and identifies the suspect using CCTV at the time of the incident.

Hundreds more arrests take place as a result of police officers reviewing video and suspects being identified at a later date.

CCTV is one of the most powerful tools to be developed during recent years to assist with efforts to combat crime and disorder.

The council’s CCTV control centre opened in 2006 and has been developing rapidly since. There are 316 street cameras in the borough and 70 are on view at any given time.

Last year CCTV footage was used to stop an attempted murder of a man in Whitechapel. CCTV operators reviewed more than 20 cameras to identify three suspects involved in the incident who were then quickly arrested. All three pleaded guilty to GBH with intent and received long custodial sentences.

Another success story involved CCTV tracking down a vehicle carrying a huge haul of Class A drugs and cash.

The use of CCTV may be a regarded by some as an infringement of people’s liberty. The council is committed to the belief that everyone has the right to respect for private and family life.

In Tower Hamlets we use CCTV as an effective security tool, to detect crime and provide reassurance to the public.

In 2012, the police made 120 arrests for robbery, three for attempted murder, and 30 burglars were caught thanks to the excellent partnership working with the council.

Using automated number plate recognition technology, we have recovered just under a £1millon worth of vehicles in two years and a total of 93 stolen vehicles were recovered as a result of CCTV.