The first thing I saw after stepping off a plane and into the London Heathrow Airport was a sign.
“CCTV,” it said in large letters. And underneath, “For your safety and security, this area is monitored by closed circuit television.”
I thought nothing of it at the time, assuming it was standard procedure for an airport to monitor activity within for security purposes. But over the last four weeks, I’ve learned that the CCTV operating system is not unique to the London airports – it’s everywhere.
Every shop in town, every building on campus, even the restrooms in the underground system in London are monitored by CCTV. And, while video surveillance is certainly nothing new to me, I can’t help but feel as though I’ve walked off a plane from the United States and into the pages of Orwell’s “1984.”
According to a 2002 BBC News article, “the average citizen in the UK is caught on CCTV cameras 300 times a day.” This number has undoubtedly risen over the past seven years as campaigns by United Kingdom police have successfully led to the installation of thousands of new CCTV cameras all over the U.K., including a new set of “talking cameras” introduced in 2007.
These new cameras monitor littering and “anti-social behavior” in public places and actually talk to people to monitor their behavior immediately. For example, if a man leaves a can on a bench, the CCTV camera will spot it and a voice will come over on the speaker: “Please fetch your can. The bin is behind the phone box. Thank you for using the bin.”
Beyond surveillance of city streets and shops for small crimes, littering and anti-social behavior, CCTV footage has been used in the past decade by UK police to track down missing children, monitor traffic and even identify terrorists (as in the case of the 2005 London bombings). These successes and uses are great, but does that make up for the blatant violation of personal privacy and civil liberties?
Information Commissioner Richard Thomas has argued that Britain is “sleepwalking into a surveillance society,” while other opponents of the system have resorted to vandalism to show their dissatisfaction with the surveillance. Some choose to merely impede the surveillance by spraying paint over the lens or covering the lens of CCTV cameras, while others deliberately destroy the cameras in hopes of making a political statement. While these means of protest are relatively ineffective, they are prevalent, adding fuel to the ongoing debate of whether or not the widespread use of CCTV in the U.K. is justified.
I’m certainly not here to say whether the use of CCTV is right or wrong. I am but a student of the world, here to learn about the way people of another culture live their lives.
But of one thing I am sure – the American inside of me will probably never shake the feeling that, in the U.K., Big Brother is watching, and his name is the CCTV.