Big Brother Watch representatives are frequently derided as kooky technophobes with an effete obsession with personal privacy when putting forward our critique of the surveillance state.
The lines deployed against us are so tired as to have become tedious. “If it saves one life or solves one crime“, people say, “it’ll all be worth it.“ “If you’ve got nothing to hide“, champions of CCTV claim, “you’ve got nothing to fear.”
If people had listened to our arguments more clearly they’d have noticed that our arguments about personal privacy, while important, have always been caged in the context of encouraging effective crime-fighting.
As we all watched with horror as shops were looted and businesses burned, a blog post on the Big Brother Watch website earlier this week outlined the wasteful way in which the scarce financial resources our Police forces possess have been allocated to CCTV systems.
Late last year, Big Brother Watch conducted the first study of the true cost burden of CCTV to local councils in the United Kingdom. Of the 342 local councils who responded to our information request, a total of £321,331,453.18 was spent on installing and operating CCTV cameras during the 2007 to 2010 period.
Hidden in the small print of the report was a crude calculation, based on the average starting salary of a Police Constable, as to how many officers could have been provided for the figure of £321 million. The figure equated to 13,536 over three years – or more than 4500 a year.
Responding to the riots, the Home Secretary Theresa May issued a brief statement saying: “what robust policing means… is dealing with the disorder on the streets, but then following that through – looking at the CCTV footage.” She is, of course, entirely correct.
The Deputy Mayor of London for Policing Kit Malthouse went on the record to praise the role CCTV is likely to play in bringing some of the violent thugs who have carried out these acts of wanton violence to justice.
Without doubt, there will be a small number of cases where CCTV is crucial in securing convictions.
What the Home Secretary and Mr Malthouse prefer, though: the provision of an active and high profile Police force on the streets of major British cities which actually prevents crime, or complex CCTV systems which can only assist in solving crimes? Prevention, at risk of sounding simplistic, is better than cure.
Advocates of CCTV and the surveillance state will argue that both methods should be deployed equally. There’s merit in that argument and BBW would not for a minute seek to argue that all public CCTV cameras should be removed. The financial reality of policing in the United Kingdom, however, renders a two-pronged approach to policing which mixes a visible police presence with cameras trained on every inch of public soil, impossible.
Choices have to be made; and Big Brother Watch wants bobbies on the beat, not a network of CCTV cameras.
This week's events proved one thing: the surveillance state has failed – and it’s time to admit it.