29 June 2009

Watching the Watchers

I read with interest this morning the following:

“Snitchtown” is an essay by Cory Doctorow that first appeared in Forbes.com in June 2007. This SoFoBoMo project is an attempt to illustrate that essay with photographs of some of the 4.2 million CCTV cameras currently estimated to be active in Britain.

It got me thinking: how about setting up a database - a surveillance of surveillance database - that has pictures and locations of CCTVs in the UK? It could be crowd sourced, and anonymous, solving problems of scaling and legal issues. If nothing else, it would put the watchers on notice that they are being watched....


Richard Rothwell said...

Open Street Map has a proposal for a CCTV icon - adding the locations to OSM with an associated image might be the way forward.

glyn moody said...

That's interesting - thanks. Even better if multiple images and text could be added as annotation.

Andrew Katz said...

Yes. And some idea of the field of view of the cameras, although that would have to be based on educated guesswork.

glyn moody said...

Indeed: I think once the basic database existed all kinds of info could be added - when cameras were upgraded, field of view, scanning etc.

Glyn Wintle said...

A great image to go with this would be http://www.openrightsgroup.org/2008/10/freedom-not-fear-the-big-picture-unveiled-on-parliament-square/
the giant collage of UK surveillance state photos.


glyn moody said...

Indeed, a wonderful encapsulation.

But how about ORG getting together with the OpenStreetMap people - see


to mobilise everyone to build that database?

I'd do my bit in publicising/pushing the idea, and I think a lot of others would, too. Maybe the Guardian would be interested.

Pater Mann said...

Although I think that there are a lot of violations of my right to privacy (is there one in the UK any more?), personally I cannot understand the fuss about CCTV cameras in public places. CCTV cameras are a very poor way of tracking people's movements as they cannot see what you do once you are out of their field of view, especially if you enter a building that does not have them. If someone really wants to know where you go and what you do, it is much easier (and more effective) to have a person follow you than any number of CCTV cameras.

The main issue that I have with CCTV cameras is that many of them have such poor resolution, particularly in low light, that the images produced are useless even for their stated purpose of detecting crime. Unfortunately, the police have found this out on numerous occasions. If the CCTV cameras cannot do the job, it is pointless installing them. It is also a waste of our money when they are put up by the local council.

In any case, many CCTV cameras overwrite the tape (or other recording medium) in a relatively short period of time (every day in some cases) so the fact that I went to the supermarket to buy groceries will be forgotten (erased) by tomorrow. [grin]

(Note that, despite my very weak joke above, this is not based on the "I have nothing to hide" argument which is completely bogus.)

glyn moody said...

@Pater: good points. I agree that often the CCTV cames are useless, but that doesn't stop them putting in more in some naive belief that it solves all the problems.

The reason I was suggest we watch the watchers is that it might - might - get the people who use them - to think about being watched themselves: I think that much of the attraction of CCTV is that it is an asymmetric power - they watch us, but we can't see them.

The more info we gathered about the CCTVs - where they are, who is running, the more symmetry is introduced.

Anonymous said...

Setting up a database of CCTV cameras might well be illegal under the Terrorism Act 2000

58 Collection of information
(1) A person commits an offence if—

(a) he collects or makes a record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or

(b) he possesses a document or record containing information of that kind.

(2) In this section “record” includes a photographic or electronic record.


Just as taking photos of the police is now illegal (Counter-Terrorism Act 2008)

76 Offences relating to information about members of armed forces etc

(1) After section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 (collection of information) insert—
“58A Eliciting, publishing or communicating information about members of armed forces etc

(1) A person commits an offence who—

(a) elicits or attempts to elicit information about an individual who is or has been—

(i) a member of Her Majesty’s forces,

(ii) a member of any of the intelligence services, or

(iii) a constable,

which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or

(b) publishes or communicates any such information.


As with all this kind of legislation, it's much more effective in controlling the public than preventing terrorism.

glyn moody said...

good point. not clear whether they'd really prosecute, but an issue, certainly.