« Another "good day to bury bad news" e.g. the illegally delayed ID Cards Scheme cost report ? | Main | MI5 and MI6 advertising for the same staff »

Institutionally voyeuristic broadcast television programmes about CCTV surveillance

British Television programmes which look at the subject of Closed Circuit Television surveillance systems, seem to be "institutionally voyeuristic"

The use of commercial promotional clips and academic research programmes, and "real street crime" clips from the Police or other Public CCTV cameras, provide broadcasters with interesting moving visual images, which, inevitably, TV producers seem to value more than critical analysis of such systems from a technical or sociological or legal point of view. They also always try to cover too many technologies in any one programme - "CCTV surveillance" now covers a wide range of technologies and actually deployed systems, all of which seem to be covered for very little longer than the length of time of an "interesting" visual clip.

Critics of such systems cannot compete visually on equal terms,especially if they are only given a token amount of airtime to provide a semblance of "balance". The last thing that many people who feel that they have suffered from intrusive CCTV surveillance want, is for their own faces to be broadcast on national television.

The supposedly balanced and neutral BBC managed to broadcast two hours of largely pro-surveillance CCTV camera techno porn, in two tranches, last week and yesterday.

Other people have noticed this bias as well e.g.

Is it a coincidence that hundreds of the world's CCTV suppliers will be congregating again at the annual IFSEC trade show next week at the NEC near Birmingham ?

The second hour long programme broadcast on Tuesday 15th May 2007 9pm-10pm on BBC1:

CCTV: You Are Being Watched Smart Cameras: Jamie Theakston narrates a two-part documentary on the history of CCTV. He reveals how scientists are developing surveillance cameras which think for themselves.

Some of our observations about this programme:

The first part of this second programme had a couple of examples of commercial systems which were given free publicity by the BBC, without any real critical analysis e.g. the real time Poseidon swimming pool lifeguard alarm system

Why does this system have to take such high resolution images of children and adults in their swimming costumes, under water, and store the results digitally, simply to provide a rare "silent drowning" alarm to lifeguards at a swimming pool ?

How many extra lifeguards could be employed for the capital costs of at least £65,000 and unknown annual running costs ?

There a was also more publicity for the "aggressive behaviour" audio snooping and detection system linked to CCTV, developed in the Netherlands. This was shown, together with positive promotion from the Mayor of Groningen (where the technology was developed) without any of our obvious questions and criticisms being put to the salesman from the Sound Intelligence company which is trying for a slice of the billion pound plus London Olympics security budget.

See CCTV with audio snooping to detect "aggressive behaviour" hype and also Blunkett confusedly opposed to CCTV audio snooping

There was a report of a CCTV "success story", in Church Street market in West London, where the local businesses have clubbed together to pay for a 10 camera scheme, monitored from the Trocadero camera control room over 5 miles away. This, from the point of view of the local residents and businesses, is deemed by their spokesman to be a success, but, even in the BBC interview clips, it seems that the problems of gangs of youths in hoodies has not actually been eliminated or fundamentally solved, the problem has simply been displaced literally around the corner, out of sight of the cameras.

Then there was a section of, essentially, CCTV control rooms, linked by radio to foot or vehicle patrols of policemen or other staff, who could investigate an incident picked up by the CCTV control room staff within a few minutes.

The Cardiff City CCTV control room was described as one of the few in the country, which is actually operated by Police Constables. Why is this so rare ?

The helicopter CCTV example of the man who fell asleep, drunk, on the railway line near Epsom had been reported by members of the public, not by CCTV control room staff, as it was out of visual range from the station. This incident, which made "good TV" images, might well have been resolved just as well without the presence of the this extra helicopter CCTV surveillance.

This is the way in which well run, and well funded CCTV surveillance systems should operate. However, most of the millions of CCTV cameras in the UK do not work like this.

The BBC's "fly on the wall" filming of, say the Kings Cross Railway and Tube Station CCTV, or the London Trocadero CCTV control rooms, actually showed how the CCTV operators can get a misleading impression of what is really going on, with the apparent heart attack victim, being identified by the staff on the scene as a mentally unbalanced hoaxer, who had faked such attacks a couple of time that month already.

The BBC programme also hyped up the incident of the attempted abduction or assault of a young woman walking home alone at night, caught on CCTV. This incident absolutely did not save the woman from being attacked. The images were released to the TV media, for no good reason, except, for voyeurism and presumably for propaganda reasons.

The CCTV camera operator did not instigate calling the Police, it was an off duty Police officer who had phoned them in the first place. Why did this BBC programme chose not to re-broadcast the next part of this clip, which shows the Police car, which was already on its way before the woman was attacked, arriving, and the attacker running off, and losing his Police pursuers ?

There was also a section on the murder of the London solicitor Tom ap Rhys Pryce, by couple of members of a gang of Tube "steamers" robbers, from Kensal Green. They were not deterred by CCTV, and were not caught by means of CCTV directly, but only because one of them used the murdered man's stolen Oyster Card, and a CCTV image of him was cross referenced with the time and location of its use. This illustrates that the "surveillance society" needs to be looked as a whole, and not just at individual technologies or techniques in isolation.

Catching murderers by specifically tracking the victim's stolen Oyster card is one thing, but keeping vast databases of the Oyster Card or mobile phone location tracking data on millions of innocent people for extended periods of time "just in case", is disproportionate and unacceptable.

The programme also devoted time to the neo-nazi terrorist bomber David Copeland and the murder of one of his bomb injury victims five years later, by another street gang on the rampage.

In most of these serious crime and murder examples shown in this programme, what is noticeable is the absence of any clear, easily recognised facial images from cameras pointing outside into the street, due to the need to zoom and indifferent lighting conditions, the criminals wearing hoodies etc.

There were a couple of good quality shots, of a criminal mentioned in passing who had gone on a gun shooting spree, without bothering to wear a hoodie etc. taken indoors i.e. on the London Underground, where lighting conditions are much better.

N.B. the usual soundbites regarding the alleged number of CCTV cameras in the UK were trotted out again, without giving a reference source for the estimate, even though, this BBC programme actually showed a few seconds from Professor Martin Gill, who edited the publication in which these "4.2 million CCTV cameras" etc. estimates were made over 4 years ago - many more cameras have been installed or upgraded since then.

See "monitored on CCTV 300 times a day" etc. soundbites

If you listened carefully, Jamie Theakston did mention several times, that the CCTV examples being shown were being used after a criminal or safety incident, and not before. However, this was more of an introduction to the latter part of the programme which looked at some of the non-commercial, academic research into gait recognition biometrics (how people walk) by Professor Mark Nixon at Southampton University (which is still not yet practical outside of controlled laboratory conditions).

Apparently this research was inspired by the notorious James Bulger murder incident , where the children who murdered the infant were caught on low quality CCTV camera images walking through a shopping centre. How "gait recognition" software, if it ever works for adults would work for children, is a mystery.

The real question about the James Bulger video clip which should be asked, is , if the dozens of adults who walked past the tragic trio of two children and an infant did not recognise that there was something wrong and stop the kids to ask where their parents are, then how can any CCTV system ever hope to do so either ?

There was also "suspicious vehicle" or "suspicious pedestrian" recognition software under development at defence contractor Roke Manor Research

The Association of Chief Police Officers spokesman on CCTV, Deputy Chief Constable Graeme Gerrard did make the claim that CCTV was as important as DNA as a crime fighting technology.

He did temper this enthusiasm with the obvious statement (which echoes our own) that

CCTV tends not to deter people who are not acting rationally

i.e. those on drugs or who are drunk, or who are fanatics - so what use is it as a deterrent ?

This programme did not examine the fact that the vast majority of CCTV footage is not used as criminal evidence, it has a good chance of not even being viewed by the Police, except for very serious crimes,

The unregulated nature (unlike Television receivers, there is no central register of where every CCTV camera is installed, and the contact details of the operators) of the vast numbers of cameras which have been installed, imposes extra delays, in the critical immediate aftermath of a major crime, simply due to the manpower resources needed to go door to door to hunt for possible CCTV footage, and to view thousands of hours of it.


Another highly disappointing 'look how marvellous this is' programme and the token attempt at 'balance' barely qualified for even that description.

I don't necessarily have an issue with the police 'head-cam' that they showed, but it would depend on usage. If it's there for evidence-gathering, i.e. in addition to the traditional note-book, not a problem. Other uses would depend, I guess - the upside is that for it to work the policeman has to be present on the street!

If someone is going to commit a crime, a CCTV will only get them to change their location. Or wear a hat.


Your link to '"monitored on CCTV 300 times a day" etc. soundbites' doesn't work.

It seems it should be this page


@ UK Liberty - thanks for spotting the broken link - hopefully it is now fixed.

Post a comment