In the past decade, the use of CCTV has grown to unprecedented levels. In Britain between £150 and £300 million ($225 – $450 million) per year is now spent on a surveillance industry involving an estimated 300,000 cameras. Most British towns and cities are moving to CCTV surveillance of public areas, housing estates, car parks and public facilities. Growth in the market is estimated at 15% to 20% 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. Increasingly, police and local councils are placing camera systems into housing estates and red light districts. Residents Associations are independently organizing their own surveillance initiatives. Tens of thousands of cameras operate in public places,; in phone booths, vending machines, buses, trains, taxis, alongside motorways and inside ATMs.
The video surveillance boom is likely to extend even inside the home. Andrew May, Assistant Chief Constable of South Wales, has urged victims of domestic violence to conceal video cameras in their homes to collect evidence. The technology is already being used in hospitals to support covert surveillance of parents suspected of abusing their children.
The limits of CCTV are constantly extended. Originally installed to deter burglary, assault and car theft, in practice most camera systems have been used to combat ‘anti-social behavior’, including many such minor offenses as littering, urinating in public, traffic violations, obstruction, drunkenness, and evading meters in town parking lots. They have also been widely used to intervene in other ‘undesirable’ behavior such as underage smoking and a variety of public order transgressions. Other innovative uses are constantly being discovered. When combined with observation of body language, the cameras are particularly effective in detecting people using marijuana and other substances. These systems are used increasingly to police public morals and public order. According to a glossy UK Home Office promotional booklet, ‘CCTV: Looking out for you’, the technology can be a solution for such problems as vandalism, drug use, drunkenness, racial harassment, sexual harassment, loitering and disorderly behavior.
CCTV is very quickly becoming an integral part of crime control policy, social control theory and ‘Community consciousness’. It is promoted by police and politicians as primary solution for urban dysfunction. It is no exaggeration to conclude that the technology has had more of an impact on the evolution of law enforcement policy than just about any technology initiative in the past two decades.
CCTV is a seductive technology. In a public policy domain which is notoriously rubbery, CCTV has a solid, “Sexy” and powerful image. It has become an icon for security and – for politicians – its promotion is guaranteed to create a feel-good response. When people are frightened of crime and criminals, critics of CCTV are often portrayed as enemies of the public interest.
While Britain is clearly the lead nation in implementing CCTV, other countries are quickly following. North America, Australia and some European countries are installing the cameras in urban environments which a few years ago would most likely have rejected the technology.