Listen to this story



Inside the City That Spies on You

At a London CCTV center, operatives monitor thousands of citizens every day. But does the public realize how surveilled they are? And do they care?

Credit: fotologic via flickr/CC BY 2.0

Eleven years ago, a giant mural appeared in Newman Street, central London, of a boy in a red jacket painting the slogan, “One Nation Under CCTV” in stark white capitals. His actions are filmed by a painted policeman next to a barking dog. Right above the mural was a real live CCTV security camera.

The mural was removed promptly by Westminster City Council, who ruled it was “an unlicensed commercial,” but its point resonated. Estimates vary, but when it was created by the elusive graffiti artist and social critic Banksy in 2008, there were something like four million surveillance cameras operating in the U.K. In a nation with a population of 66 million, the “One Nation Under CCTV” claim is no hyperbole.

In London alone, an estimated 500,000 CCTV cameras are believed to be in operation. Due to criminal activity, and CCTV Legal Requirements, many businesses invest in CCTV to improve safety on their premises, but the state also operates a vast network of cameras. The average Londoner going about her business is caught on camera 300 times per day. The highest density of cameras can be found in the train stations at King’s Cross and St. Pancras, where 408 devices monitor roughly 81 million people per year.

As surveillance technology has evolved — and arguably without adequate safeguards against over-intrusive surveillance of citizens — the U.K. has become one of the most monitored societies in the world. Citizens are monitored daily through local, all-seeing CCTV headquarters which aggregate footage from across the community, helping investigate crimes but also monitoring innocent people in public as they go about their daily life. It’s a state of affairs that even the U.K.’s independent CCTV commissioner admits the public are not fully aware of.

That view was reinforced by a 2018 report by Big Brother Watch that stated surveillance in Britain has “permeated almost every aspect of our lives. A future that, to many, may seem distant and unimaginably dystopian, is very much a reality, in 2018.” And yet, when it comes to the ubiquitousness of government surveillance, the compliance from the general public is glaring.

“If you look in countries which, in our living memory, have had communism and dictatorships, in those countries, they are much more suspicious of the right of the state to control people’s lives,” says William Webster, Professor of Public Policy and Management at the University of Stirling and Co-Director of the Centre for Research into Information, Surveillance and Privacy (CRISP). “We haven’t been invaded in the U.K. for 2000 years. We don’t necessarily see the state acting like that. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t act like that, but we don’t see or feel it.”

To get a sense of why this is, and whether there are any checks in place that other countries might look to, I visited some of the people operating this immense web of surveillance.

The last 13 years have been hard on Londoners. There were the July 7, 2005 bombings, which killed 52 people and left more than 700 injured. In the summer of 2011, protests erupted in Tottenham, a deprived area in the north of the city, following the death of Mark Duggan, a local man who was shot and killed by police. Public anger quickly spread to the rest of the capital, and later the country. Almost a week of violence ensued in many cities across Britain. By the time the anger subsided, 3,000 arrests had been made, with more than 1,000 people charged with criminal offenses. In March last year, Khalid Masood killed four people when he plowed his rental car into pedestrians on London’s Westminster Bridge. Three months later, on June 3, three men drove a van into pedestrians on London Bridge before getting out and stabbing people in nearby Borough Market. Eight were killed, dozens more were injured. Two weeks after the London Bridge attack, Darren Osborne, 47, plowed his vehicle into a group of worshippers outside the Muslim Welfare House, in north London, as they broke their Ramadan fast. One man died at the scene.

Investigating these crimes, the U.K. police combed through hundreds of hours of CCTV footage. Those tragedies caused immeasurable human suffering and left an indelible mark on the British psyche. But they also made it easier for both the government and private businesses to ramp up their surveillance apparatus.

A report published last year revealed that the U.K. spends an estimated £2.2 billion ($2.89 billion) annually on video surveillance systems, with most of the investment coming from the private sector. But does the public realize quite how much CCTV infrastructure is operating around them?

“Terrorism is being used as a very powerful emotional excuse to make all sorts of changes in society.”

“When I took my role in 2014, surveillance was essentially CCTV cameras,” I’m told by Tony Porter, the U.K. government’s national commissioner for security cameras — the only such position in the world. “In the last four years, we have had an explosion in the use of drones, body-worn cameras, automatic number plate recognition cameras, and now we have the issue of biometrics. I would say, in all honesty, that I do not believe that the British public fully understand the capabilities of that type of technology.”

A former counter-terrorism officer, Porter’s remit is to provide independent oversight to the government’s prying eyes. He has a staff of four and an annual budget of $386,000. I suggest that the mere existence of his role is indicative of how bad things have gotten, but the commissioner is more sanguine. “You could also say, isn’t that reassuring that there is only one such role, globally, and it is an indication that the U.K. takes civil liberties and human rights perhaps more seriously [than other countries].”

In the government’s effort to strike a balance between safety and privacy, there have been some missteps. In 2010, it was revealed that CCTV cameras, 72 of them hidden, were put in Muslim neighborhoods in Birmingham, paid for with funds earmarked for counter-terrorism strategies. Trust between British Muslims — especially the young — and the police hit a new low, from which it has not recovered. In 2016, a 10-year-old Muslim boy, who misspelled a word during an English lesson, found himself in police custody for hours. The child, from the northwest of England, had written that he lived in a “terrorist house.” He meant to write “terraced house.”

“Terrorism is being used as a very powerful emotional excuse to make all sorts of changes in society,” says Anders Sandberg, from the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. “I don’t think you have to choose between privacy and security. Security is a feeling, just as privacy, to a large degree, is a feeling. The problem is that people treat them as absolute rights.”

Tucked away in an industrial estate, surrounded by terraced houses and tower blocks, the Enfield Public Safety Centre in north London is a CCTV control room that manages 435 cameras in a borough which is home to 330,000 people. Since it opened in 2003, the center has registered more than 19,000 incidents, ranging from elderly people tripping on unpaved sidewalks to murders and suicides. The neighborhood, although vibrant and multicultural, is notorious for gang activity.

This morning, CCTV operators are watching a crowd lifting a blue Volkswagen off the ground. A woman has just been run over, and members of the public are trying to pull her from under the vehicle. A few minutes later paramedics arrive and start helping her.

I sit next to Habbib, at the CCTV center, less than three miles away. Habbib, 29, used to be a bus driver. Before that, he worked in retail, and compared to his previous jobs, he tells me, “this is one of the easiest things I have ever done.”

I can’t help but wonder if these people are aware that a group of strangers in a dark room on an industrial estate nearby are sitting back, watching their every move.

I watch as Habbib goes “on patrol,” checking a list of cameras scattered around the borough and taking note of anything unusual. “We need to log every infraction,” he tells me, not taking his eyes off the screens. “From garbage bags disposed of incorrectly to gang-related activity, everything matters.”

On an average day, people in this room witness stabbings, car thefts, and people jumping in front of trains. But what I see most often in the dozens of monitors in front of me are just snippets of everyday life — couples shopping, people on their way to work, mothers pushing strollers. I can’t help but wonder if these people are aware that a group of strangers in a dark room on an industrial estate nearby are sitting back, watching their every move.

Inside the Enfield Public Safety Centre. Photos by author.

The manager, Darren Woods, who has worked in security for 20 years, assures me the ends justify the means. “A lot of the time the cameras have helped,” he says. “If we decided to take all the cameras down, I think this would be a very different city.”

Woods manages a team of 22, overseeing a 24-hour operation. The crew works 12-hour shifts, on a four days on, four days off basis. His team are encouraged to register as many infractions as possible; the more infractions are caught on camera, the more justifiable CCTV surveillance will look to the authorities and the public.

“The work we do here must be proactive as much as reactive,” Darren says. “Sometimes, we have handed footage to the police which has prevented a major crime from being committed.”

Susane, the supervisor in charge of the CCTV operators, has the one key personality trait her boss looks for in his recruits. “I’m just nosy,” she tells me, while converting registered incidents into PDF files and arranging them in a folder. “This job suits me perfectly because I like to know everyone’s business.”

The CCTV operators working for local authorities and the government have to follow a strict set of rules. Regular training courses keep them up to date with new technology and procedural standards. Some rules are sacred — having a watertight reason for focusing a camera on someone is chief among them; for example, zooming in on lone women and on children, unless absolutely necessary, is a sackable offense.

While limited, the U.K. does, at least, have an ongoing public discourse on how far government surveillance should be allowed to go and for what purposes. In other parts of the world, the privacy versus security debate doesn’t even exist — for example, China, which recently rolled out its “Social Credit System”, a behavioral modification program that evaluates and distills the behavior of each of its intensively surveilled 1.4 billion citizens into a single score.

“While China uses surveillance technology to shape its people’s behavior, they also do it in a fairly public way,” says Enrique Dans, Innovation Professor at the IE Business School in Madrid, Spain, who has taught in China. “They are not hiding what they are doing like maybe some other governments.”

In young, volatile democracies especially, the lure of technological greatness is already coming at a great social cost.

Yet, despite some public concern about the scale of surveillance, five years after the Snowden revelations there have been few limits placed on the scope and duration of surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) in the U.S. and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the U.K. In September 2018, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the British government’s bulk interception program was in breach of privacy rights, as there wasn’t enough oversight for how data was collected. It also ruled that the way data was collected from tech companies broke human rights laws.

Today, tens of thousands of cameras, known as automatic number plate recognition devices (ANPRs), hover over roadways in the U.K., ostensibly helping to catch speeding motorists and parking violators. It is also a tool to track the comings and goings of suspected criminals. Body cameras are worn not just by police, but also by some staff in schools, hospitals, and public leisure centers.

In the past decade, the industry that satisfies governments’ demands for surveillance communications has skyrocketed, and it is one of today’s most rapidly expanding markets. Most surveillance technologies are produced by American, European, and Israeli companies and sold to anonymous agencies across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.

Many of the countries buying into that technology, however, still lack the institutions and the legislative oversight to keep it under control. In young, volatile democracies especially, the lure of technological greatness is already coming at a great social cost.

“The thing with technology is that it kind of becomes irresistible,” says Professor Webster. “It’s very tempting when it can do something for us more efficiently. But just because the technology can do something it doesn’t mean we should use it.”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store