Big Bother

How a million surveillance cameras in London are proving George Orwell wrong.

Islington is a fashionable neighborhood in North London, a gentrified residential area described, if only by real estate agents, as the new Notting Hill. In 1944, however, many of its characteristic four-story eighteenth-century townhouses had been broken into flats for working-class families, and it was into one of those, on the top floor of 27 Canonbury Square, overlooking a small preserve of green, that George Orwell moved with his wife and son after a V-2 rocket demolished their previous home. The space was drab, drafty, and leaky, but proved, in its way, inspiring. Descriptions in his next novel of an apartment, where the plaster flaked constantly from ceilings and walls, the pipes burst in every hard frost, the roof leaked whenever there was snow, and of its occupants wearying climb up the staircase, which he took slowly, resting several times on the way, show that 1984, the visionary novel about life in an all-seeing totalitarian state, began taking shape in those rooms. It is no small irony that today, across the square from Orwells home, two traffic cameras operate all day; and that the rear windows of his building are in the frame of security cameras set outside a conference center; and that theres a camera at a car dealership by Orwells pub, and three more at the local grocery. All told, there are thirty-two closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV) running twenty-four hours a day within 200 yards of the place where the chilly thought of the perpetually watching Big Brother had its incubation.

Ironic to find so many, but not unexpected; you could have picked any Briton from Shakespeare to Sid Vicious, and odds would favor finding cameras near his stomping grounds. For the last quarter century, under Conservative and Labor governments alike, the United Kingdom has conducted a living experiment on the use of cameras to conduct domestic surveillance that would have made Stasi operatives green with envy. There are roughly 4.3 million cameras in the UKa million of them in the city of London alone, according to the Metropolitan Police Service. They are operated by the Metropolitan Police and by the London Underground, by private security firms and local governments, by schools and hospitals and parking lots and chip shops. They survey busy intersections, Tube platforms, and significant buildings, but also the entrances to pubs, apartment buildings, and health clubs. In some parts of London, they are literally everywhere. Walk in any direction in Westminster, for example, where Parliament and the government buildings are collected, and youll see cameras prominently poking out from the sides of most buildings, large, gray, boxy sentinels forming part of the so-called Ring of Steel that monitors all traffic in and out of the most iconic, target-rich part of London. At Canary Wharf, the sprawling, shiny, pulsating business complex on the south bank of the Thames, the cameras are smaller, subtler, architecturally integrated into the design but nonetheless visible, reassuringly present but not so obvious as to disrupt the money making. But in poorer East London, you have to look long and hard to see more than the humble traffic cam. And ones reactions vary with the coverage: in the face of a massive deployment of cameras in a bustling, prosperous part of town, one feels slightly crimped by the awareness of being watched. But when one is a stranger in a strange place where the environment is a bit seedy and there are no cameras, one feels just a little bit more alone.

And one thing is sure: more are coming. Right now there is one camera for every fourteen people in the UK, and if they keep being installed as fast as they have been, they will one day outnumber people. The trend has also caught on in the United States, with growing numbers of CCTV cameras popping up in cities from Los Angeles to Chicago. The proliferation of CCTV and other surveillance tools strikes many as sinister. Two years ago I warned that we were in danger of sleepwalking into a surveillance society, said British Information Commissioner Richard Thomas in 2006. Today I fear that we are in fact waking up to a surveillance society that is already all around us.

There are indeed emerging surveillance technologies worth worrying aboutfrom data mining systems employed by the Bush Pentagon to a host of security measures advocated by Britains Labor government, such as mandatory tracking devices on all cars. But when it comes to CCTV, the great Orwellian fears havent come close to being realized. The cameras have not become appendages of an all-seeing, all-powerful government. Perhaps because bureaucracies in the UK are mighty forces for inefficiency and inaction, perhaps because abuses have been reined in by good English common sense, the cameras have been deployed in a largely benign way. And despite the fact that the most extensive study of the cameras effectivenessone commissioned by the Home Office of the British governmentfound no evidence to support the claim that CCTV cameras actually deter crime, surveys show most UK citizens welcome them. The reason for their popularity seems to be the sense of security they offer and their unquestionable usefulness in catching criminals once crimes have occurred. Orwell, it seems, was prescient about the coming ubiquity of surveillance cameras, but when it comes to their effects on individual liberty he missed the mark.

Some of the most gripping images of the last few years were shot beginning at 12:26 p.m. on July 21, 2005, on a subway car just short of the Oval station on the Tubes Northern line. Captured in intervals every few seconds by CCTV cameras positioned at opposite ends of the car, recorded in dim light that creates a kind of milky filter, the scenes show a group of passengers, most prominent among them a stocky young man with a knapsack wearing a navy sweatshirt that says NEW YORK on the front. In the first image, he is standing there, hand in his pocket, unremarkable; in the next, everybody is scrambling away from him, trying to get out of the car. The next image, taken from the other end of the car, shows a tall man in a white T-shirt helping a woman with a baby, wrestling her into the next car. Then he turns, and from a distance of eight feet or so he begins speaking to the young man in the sweatshirt. The conversation wasnt recorded, but later, testifying at trial, the man in the T-shirta fireman named Angus Campbellsaid, I was shouting at him, What have you done? What have you done? I was probably quite vociferous. I was telling him to lie down. Then the train reaches the station and the doors open and the passengers flee, the man in sweatshirt included. His name is Ramzi Mohammed, and cameras follow him in his distinctive New York sweatshirt as he races through the glossy white-tile corridors of the station and out onto the street.

Those pictures, and similar pictures of three fellow conspirators, who on two other subway cars and a bus had also tried to explode bombs that turned out to be duds, were in the hands of the police within hours, were published in the late editions of the newspapers, and were splashed across television screens that night. I was struck by how normal [the men] looked, said Tim OToole, then the managing director of the London Underground. Thats whats creepy about it. The guy didnt look extraordinary in any way, and there he was, on his way to what he thought would be his death.

OToole is a professional railroad man and attorney born and raised in Pittsburgh who ran the Tube from 2003 until his resignation in February 2009. Hes been called the best public servant in London, and thirty-five years ago he was my college roommate. Two weeks before the stillborn attacks of July 21, OToole was one of the key officials coordinating the response to the deadly attacks of July 7, in which suicide bombers on three subways and one bus set off explosions that killed fifty-two passengers and injured at least 700 more. Working out of the Undergrounds operations center near St. Jamess Park, OToole had his team shut down the system, evacuated to safety a quarter-million people who were on the trains, and then succeeded in getting the deserted system up and running in time for the next mornings commute.

The prompt appearance of the CCTV images on the 21st was a tremendous relief to a city where dozens of police officers were still reviewing hundreds of hours of CCTV images taken on the 7th, trying to tease from vague faces on crowded platforms the identities of that crimes perpetrators. Seeing those pictures took away all the tension, says OToole, because the message we were able to send, subliminally, was Okay, now we know who those guys are, and were going to find them. Without that ability to project control, everybody would have been afraid. Indeed, within days, the suspects were in custody.

Fear, control, normalcy: concepts that have dominated in the West since the attacks of September 11, concepts never really out of discussion. CCTV emerged as a tool for public control in the 1980s during another period of unease. British life was marked by rising crime, labor unrest, and strapped resources, and Michael Howard, who was John Majors home secretarya job that involves overseeing law enforcement and security, among other responsibilitieslatched onto the idea of CCTV as a reasonably cheap and effective tool for reexerting a sense of control and restoring a sense of normalcy. Calling it a real asset to communities, a great deterrent to crime and huge reassurance to the public, Howard began funding CCTV systems in towns and villages. Although there was no research to back up Howards assertions, a lot of local governments thought that the presence of cameras would reassure people that it was safe to go shopping, and installed some systems.

Then came the incident that supercharged the adoption of CCTV. In the afternoon of February 12, 1993, a two-year-old boy named James Bulger disappeared from a shopping center in Liverpool. Investigators eliminated the family as suspects, and then focused on reports that an older man with a ponytail had been hanging around. Sometime after midnight, police, hoping to spot this putative pedophile, reviewed the videotapes from the security cameras at the shopping center. What they saw shocked the world: a shot of little James being led away by two older boys. The following afternoon Jamess body turned up. Although the identity of the abductors could not be discerned from the pictures, police soon received an anonymous tip naming two ten-year-olds, who were later found guilty of the crime. From this senseless, disturbing incident, CCTV acquired a powerful, visceral, illogical justification: anyone against CCTV must be for child murder. You see that picture everywhere now, says one observer. Its the modern image of the devil, the contemporary image of danger in our midst. In the aftermath of the Bulger murder, and over the decade that followed, funding for the systems exploded.

Which is how there got to be so many, not from any centralized initiative, but in an ad hoc, incremental, decentralized accumulation, to the point that someone working in Central London is seen by an estimated 300 cameras a day. It seems like an alarming number, but the practical effect on a persons behavior is negligible. Ive got news for you, says one man, shrugging off the significance. While youre being seen by 300 cameras, youre also being seen by 25,000 people. The cameras are not located in places where people have an expectation of privacy, and in many cases you would probably not notice them were you not alerted to their presence by one of the large yellow signs that the law mandates be placed in plain view in proximity to the camera. Its also true that in a lot of places, while an individual may be on camera, its not even an individual who is being watched. At the big modern Whitehall Station, one person monitors eight screens that get feeds from more than eighty cameras; the images on the screens change every ten seconds or so, and monitors are trained not to see people per se, but to see situations, and to recognize among a tide of images of normal traffic that person or object or situation that is abnormal. The monitors arent really seeing people; theyre seeing crowds.

And while Londons million cameras are just a dizzying number, its important to realize that they are not linked in an omni-observant panopticon. The cameras are in many different hands, so while it is possible, after a great crime like the July 7 bombings, for police to reconstruct a perpetrators trail through banks and service stations and ultimately into the Tube, police could not continuously track a suspect from one point to another across more than one system in real time. That doesnt prevent the public from believing that it can be done. We have a show called Spooks, says Kevin Clack, one of the Tubes security managers, talking about a BBC drama about MI-5, the governments internal security agency (the show was called MI-5 when it ran in the U.S.): We let them use the stations to film in, and in one episode, one of the agents chased a guy into the Whitehall station, and then ran into our CCTV operating center and began downloading information from MI-5 and sending images from the CCTV cameras to his chums and so on. Well, it was all made up. Were not linked to MI-5, but Im sure many viewers believe we are now.

So elevated are the expectations for CCTV, says Clack, that when people are the victims of a crime on the Tube, they expect the incident to have been captured, and are often angry if it has not been.

But if its surprising that there is no amazing linkup between the cameras and Scotland Yard and Interpol and the Justice League of America, heres something even more astonishing: there doesnt seem to be a great deal of interest on the part of police to use the things, at least not preemptively. From the beginning, the Home Office set up the systems with town councils and other civilian authorities; for whatever reasondisdain for new methods, wariness of a technology that would invite allusions to Big Brotherthe Association of Chief Police Officers declined to get involved. Later, after the cameras were set up to facilitate traffic control and parking enforcement, many police departments got involved on an ad hoc basis to get some law enforcement benefit. But the return influence on police practices seems small. There was no evidence of any significant or systematic attempt by the police to incorporate CCTV into their existing information or surveillance networks, writes Oxford criminologist Benjamin Goold in his 2003 book CCTV and Policing. None of the stations had made any effort to establish a system whereby information collected by CCTV could be made available to other police divisions or departments … Nor had any provision been made for keeping CCTV operators informed of ongoing police surveillance operations being carried out in their local area. In a lot of places, Goold writes, they didnt even adjust the patrols to complement the coverage they got from CCTV. Its hardly surprising, then, that studies have found the cameras do little to deter crime. Apart from any palliative feelings they generate among the public, the major benefit of these contraptions seems to lie in their ability to help the police find out who did what and how after a crime has occurred.

Instead of the problems and issues that come from a centralized authority exploiting an integrated system, then, you get the problems and issues that come from human foibles set free to operate under loose control. There are guidelines for CCTV use that have generally worked, but there are the stories about the camera that was pointed at somebodys bedroom window; about prejudiced operators who called in the cops to question people the operators thought undesirable; about the operator who caught a couple having sex against a wall, and burned a disk of the event to show his mates; about the parking lot guards at a university who were reviewing tapes for evidence of break-ins, discovered instead two teachers going at it in a car, and then gossiped about it, humiliating the teachers. And while its possible that some motivated leader could order up the construction of the IT infrastructure that would link all these eyes, that would be an expensive upgrade unlikely to happen soon. Consider: in this day of powerful servers that connect computers around the globe, the link between the London Metropolitan Polices communication system and that of the Tubes Transport Police is a pleasant police officer named Vanessa, who reads reports of crimes in progress off of one system and inputs that news into the other. This is because the communication system of the Metropolitan Police is based on a Commodore 64 computer, which may be out of date and incompatible with the Windows operating system but it works fine and everybody in the department knows how to use it, and no one is going to invest the time or money to upgrade.

So what is there to worry about? The technologys not all that, the police dont seem all fired up to exploit the cameras potential, and the public seems to like them. Well, theres just no getting around what one might call the philosophical problem. With CCTV, everyone becomes an object of suspicion, just by virtue of being filmed, says Brendan ONeill, a commentator and the editor of Spiked-online.com. During the Enlightenment, the assumption was that you are a free citizen and should be left alone unless you have done something wrong. Now the assumption is turned completely on its head. Now you have to perform your innocence. You have to prove that you are good, rather than for the state to prove that you are not.

ONeill makes an interesting point. There has always been the recognition that one has more freedom to act in private than in public, that there are things you can do indoors that would be socially unacceptable, if not actually illegal, in public. But in practice, who among us has always observed that distinction? Almost all of us have followed the urge to do something foolhardy but most likely funsmoking a joint in an alley, drinking in a parking lot, having sexual congress in a dark and deserted corner of a parkthat we as autonomous free people chose to do, and, crucially, thought we could get away with doing. It is interesting that the most direct resistance to the implementation of CCTV has come in the rural areas where the cameras are used to catch speeders on lightly traveled country roadspeople alone on a highway who felt capable of deciding for themselves how fast they could go. Out there, the cameras get broken.

Of course, most of us have never lived a moment of our lives as wholly autonomous individuals, and we are for the most part happy that some ancestor swapped his autonomy for the protection of some big strong guy on a horse. Governments may often be dangerous, but people are scary, a point which was brought home not long ago to Johann Hari, a columnist for the Independent, when he witnessed an early-morning street incident in which a well-dressed chap was beating a homeless person. The homeless man ran away and his assailant claimed self-defense, and that might have been the end of it, except that the incident was caught on CCTV, and it showed the banker initiating the conflict. After that, I began thinking about CCTV, Hari says. The July 7th bombers were identified through CCTV. The July 21st conspirators were caught through the use of CCTV. The Soho nail bomber, who killed three people in 1999, was caught through CCTV. Cameras didnt identify the Ipswich Ripper, a man who murdered six prostitutes, but they tracked three of his victims, which helped the police focus on a suspect. Now, you can say that CCTV somehow inhibits your freedom, but those people who did not get blown up in the next attack of the Soho nail bomber are now more free. Prostitutes in Ipswich are now more free. Homeless people in my neighborhood are now more free. The fact that these cameras could be abused by an oppressive government in the future is an argument against having an oppressive government, not against the technology.

Which brings us to the future. The performance of CCTV in Britain has been generally benign, but as we all know, past performance is not a guarantee of future results. The next generation of cameras will be far more capable; planners are experimenting with cameras that have facial recognition software and voice recognition capability, so observers can identify when people are getting angry or are using words associated with criminal activity. (Think of all the nasty things you have said about Vice President Cheney over the years, and how much time youd like to spend explaining to authorities that no, really, youre just a blowhard.) Perhaps most creepily, developers are also trying out cameras that will tell you to put out your cigarette or pick up the candy wrapper youve just dropped.

These inventions are just part of what might be waiting on the near horizon. In the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7 the British government has pushed other programs, like instituting a national biometric ID card, a national DNA database, a program to track all electronic communications, and a plan to put a locating device on all automobiles. The public views these initiatives with far greater suspicion than it sees CCTV, thanks in part to a drumbeat of news reports about diskettes containing secure documents and sensitive records being left by government officials in taxicabs, and articles about local officials using antiterrorism legislation passed after 9/11 to mount surveillance operations to catch people suspected of littering, dumping, fishing illegally, and applying to a school outside their district. With no one giving Gordon Browns government much chance of surviving the 2010 elections, and with the Conservative Party having already expressed its opposition to a national identity card and promising to eliminate funding for some of these other programs, the drive to implement the programs is apt to be stalledor at least continued under other auspices. After all, the government may not be able to locate you, but the phone company can, and the government may not have a central ID card, but the Tesco grocery chain has an affinity card that knows how much oatmeal and ketchup and booze and condoms and Wellbutrin its customers have bought. The coming generation is far more comfortable with technology; it expects institutions to be equipped and up-to-date, and having lived so much of its life so far on Facebook and MySpace, it has a far more relaxed view of privacy than its parents possess (there are stories of guys whove been caught brawling on CCTV asking cops to burn them a copy of the fight). When that generation has its Bulger murder or July 7 attack, these capabilities will be waiting. And as we saw with CCTV, events, more than people, were the driving force behind its adoption.

So, Orwell had it wrong. His apartment isnt under the view of one oppressive Big Brother but thirty-two mostly harmless Little Brothers. Technological creep has become technological flood, too powerful to be stemmed and far too beneficial to be stymied by potential risks. The UKs experience with CCTV cameras ought to give us at least some faith that democratic governments can handle these new technologies. But as with nuclear power or weapons of mass destruction, surveillance is a phenomenon where the costs of mistakes or abuses are beyond calculation. The history of the future may well be determined by whether those who are supposed to benefit from surveillance cozily nestle under its blanket of protection, or stare back at it as unblinkingly as it stares at us.

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Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.