Account Management


Cops and Home Office plot uber-CCTV network

Lewis Page
The Register
Tuesday October 23, 2007

You know in the movies or on the telly, where the sinister (Bourne) or perhaps heroic (Spooks) government agents are thinking about a problem somewhere?

The person in charge often barks something like "Is there any CCTV?"

Some kind of minion - perhaps dressed and coiffured like a tramp to indicate technical competence - quickly rattles away on a keyboard. And then, within seconds, bingo - the boss is looking at live images of a given street, often with sufficient resolution to identify faces.

Scary stuff - though old Jason Bourne usually gets away, and often turns the tables on the watchers.

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A lot of people believe that this sort of capability already exists in the UK, widely described as the most watched country in the world. The headline figure which probably sank deepest into the public consciousness was that Londoners get videoed or snapped by camera systems 300 times each day; surely enough for sharply-dressed Spooks in their shiny offices to watch us without ever leaving Thames House.

That's all cobblers, according to a new report released last week under the joint auspices of top-cop talkshop ACPO and the Home Office. National CCTV Strategy (http://www.crimereduction.gov.uk/cctv/cctv048.pdf) (big pdf) says that the reality is rather different. Most of the cameras that record us produce grainy images insufficient to identify a face, it seems. In many cases, supposing we have committed a crime, the plods won't ever become aware of the existence of useful recordings before they get overwritten.

If they do find out about the records, it won't be a lovely lightning process in a high-tech office. Rather, a copper standing at a crime scene will normally spot a camera, go to see its owner, physically seize some recordings, get them put onto a VHS cassette, and then laboriously sit and watch loads of tape to see if there is anything of use. The vast majority of British CCTV systems are privately owned, according to the report's authors; and even in the case of public systems, only rarely do plods or other executive agencies have any remote hookup. It's far more normal for footsore investigators to trudge round and collect evidence by hand, even with council cameras. It seems that in many cases likely suspects have to be bailed because CCTV footage can't be got hold of quickly enough.

As for Bourne-style real-time action, that seems to be almost fantasy. Local authority CCTV operators monitoring town centres strive for pro-active or quick-reactive capability, but often enough don't even have access to the police radio net - they have to phone up like everyone else. And it isn't uncommon for "roaming" work using pan/tilt/zoom cameras to later lead to complaints because the camera could have been trained on a known troublespot the whole time but wasn't, or because it didn't record a known incident for evidence purposes.

The Orwellian panopticon does exist, apparently; but it doesn't work very well - at least, according to the ACPO and Home Office authors. The government analysts even cast doubt on the famous 300-a-day for Londoners figure:

In London, it is estimated that on average, an individual may be recorded by over 300 different cameras in any given day. However, the evidence from police investigations does not suggest such extensive coverage. This may be for a combination of reasons, including: the figures are wrong... We cannot say with any certainty how accurate previous estimates of camera numbers are.

The report also grumbles about cameras getting hijacked by traffic authorities:

Some existing cameras originally installed for detecting crime are now being positioned to monitor a bus lane and record vehicle number plates. Whilst the cameras are being used in this way, it seems unlikely that they will then be used proactively to patrol the area and detect crime.

Here the plods and civil servants seem to fall in with widely-held beliefs that driving in bus lanes is (or should be) perfectly legal.

It also seems that a lot of camera systems are installed by shops, malls etc. not to provide evidence in cases of assault or mugging - nor to allow people's movements to be monitored - but for the purposes of the owners. These might include protecting a firm from frivolous slip-and-fall lawsuits, or preventing employee pilfering. The plods and mandarins say that's all very well, but:

Often there is a public expectation that these systems are being installed for their safety, but the CCTV may not be of sufficient quality for police to use in criminal investigations.

Indeed, the government authors, in their desire to push the case for nationally-set high-res CCTV standards and central control, seek to assert that most current records are of no use for law-enforcement.

"Anecdotal evidence suggests," they say - very authoritative - "over 80 per cent of the CCTV footage supplied to the police is [Rubbish? Dross? Useless?] far from ideal..."

A meaningless twice-qualified statement, effectively saying "a man in the pub told me it's all crap". Even so, two national (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/10/20/ncctv120.xml) broadsheets (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/crime/article2697976.ece) used it as the basis for their headlines. A tactical error by the authors, really, as it allows anti-snooping campaigners to suggest that CCTV is useless anyway, so we may as well not bother with it.

That certainly isn't what the writers meant. They'd prefer to see all CCTV systems - public and private - upgraded, and not just so that detectives would be able to ID known villains or confirm/prove that suspects in custody had done wrong.

"Improving the quality of CCTV images will support the development of current, complimentary [sic] technologies such as Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) and future technologies such as facial recognition," they say.

ANPR, of course, allows vehicles (well, numberplates, anyway) to be secretly, automatically located and tracked nationwide in large numbers, as it costs much less per vehicle than a surveillance team. Facial recognition could allow the same to be done with actual people.

This kind of data can be very handy. The classic example might involve hooking up a ring of ANPR cams around the national capital to a database of heavy trucks normally operating in - let us say - certain intensively-monitored places in Northern Ireland. One could tell the computer to flag up any HGV approaching the City of London having recently been in South Armagh, for instance. That won't necessarily foil the enemy, but it makes his job harder.

Near-real-time use of nationwide CCTV may not be an option now, but the government would like it to be. The two main requirements, of course, would be a central database of every camera and a network allowing access to it from elsewhere than a local control room, shop till etc. Consider these repetitious grumbles from the report:

The [Data Protection Act] does not require CCTV systems to be registered – this is considered to be at the heart of all the problems...

No effective systems for registration of CCTV are in place...

[There is] no central register of CCTV systems nationwide...

The answer?

A system of registration is needed and an initial step towards this would be to create a database listing all CCTV schemes. Such a database would provide information such as location of cameras, their coverage...

Bingo. Step one to a real Bourne-style panopticon. And:

Only in a few of the more recent installations is there remote access... on almost every occasion where police need to view CCTV material, they first have to attend the venue... This is all prior to assessing if the CCTV has even captured the event...

This is assumed to be bad. Again, the top cops have plans:

The delays and difficulties outlined above need not arise if the live and stored CCTV systems were networked and the CCTV material was easily accessible... Consideration needs to be given to the expansion of the networks to include CCTV from shopping centres, transport and commercial CCTV schemes.

There's even a note about plugging in the cams in the corner shop - strictly with the owner's permission of course. And it comes with the admission that:

Security, access and audit trails need to be stringent and continuing management scrutiny of the security, access and audit trails will be essential.

No shit. This is actually worse than what Jason Bourne has to put up with, as the spooks would one day have no need to know where he was to start following him on camera. Rather, the second he drove the wrong car, used the wrong credit card - or maybe even just took down the top of his hoodie - ding! Nearby cams would swivel round and he would be followed in real time until the cold steel bracelets snapped shut on his wrists.

Honest, that's the plan:

In future, as technology is developed... such a network will allow the use of automated search techniques (i.e. face recognition) and can be integrated with other systems such as ANPR, and police despatch systems... [there might also be links of] transport system cameras to travel cards [and] shop cameras to Electronic Point of Sale (EPOS) systems... actions can be triggered by associated events and post event CCTV images can be quickly searched against other events/data...

Even the report's authors note that people might be worried by this.

"Integrated systems significantly increase the capacity to undertake public surveillance," they say, "and therefore needs to be carefully controlled by Information and Surveillance Commissioners’ guidance..."

Very few of us are in favour of truck bombs in London. The trouble is, this kind of kit - being so much cheaper and easier to access than surveillance teams, aircraft, fortified watchtowers etc. - can, and probably will, get used for many other purposes. The report admits as much.

In addition to the police, there are many other uses and users of CCTV, such as... insurance companies and solicitors... local authority officers... highways enforcement officers, dog wardens, health safety and licensing ...

So, potentially your insurers, solicitors acting for your enemies, every petty official in the land, even the bloody dog warden can watch and track you. Unless of course you're the kind of person who deals only in cash, wears his hoodie up at all times and mainly drives stolen, uninsured or unregistered cars.

There is also a mildly chilling hint that a lot of this capability is already out there, in the hands of the intelligence agencies and their secretive special-powers police associates.

Consultation has taken place with the Counter Terrorist Command of the Metropolitan Police (SO15), the Security Services [MI5, MI6 and GCHQ]... [and the] Serious and Organised Crime Agency... National security considerations prevent a detailed description of their requirements appearing in this document.

Certainly it's well known that the spies, the special forces and elements of the police were using integrated (often covert or airborne) CCTV as part of an almost total surveillance umbrella in places like West Belfast decades ago, getting round the tech limitations of the time by using large amounts of lavishly-trained manpower when required. Rumour has it that certain areas of the mainland UK are nowadays getting the same treatment.

So what? The government is quite clear that things have not gone far enough, and the ultimate goal should be to "create an effective cross country strategic CCTV network".

It doesn't work well on hoodies, the jails are full anyway and the counter-terror lads aren't doing too badly already. Who's this new stuff supposed to watch, then?

Maybe the government should just stick to checking bus lanes after all.

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