The Times (London), May 7, 1999, Friday.
LENGTH: 1070 words
HEADLINE: Big brother is watching you
BYLINE: Jon Ashworth
An average person could be filmed on up to 300 closed circuit television cameras in a single day. Jon Ashworth investigates.
It is hard to erase the haunting image of Jill Dando, with less than an
hour left to live, stepping into Dixons on her way home. The image, captured on
a security camera, is all the more chilling for its detached voyeurism.
Another image leaps out at us: a man in a baseball cap, singled out from the
Brixton crowd. From shopping to driving to boarding a train, the chances are that a
camera captures our every movement.
But closed-circuit television (CCTV) is merely one part of a broad
canvas. Switch on your mobile phone and you might as well have an electronic tag
chained to your ankle. Send an e-mail and you might as well send up a flare. Sign
up for a supermarket loyalty card and there is no telling who will know your
secrets. It is hard to escape the feeling that Big Brother is looking over your
The investigation into Miss Dando's murder has brought home to everyone
just how pervasive CCTV cameras have become. Detectives are seeking to recreate
her journey back to her Fulham home using images snapped from cameras along the
way. London Underground security tapes might provide fresh clues. All add to
pieces of a pictorial jigsaw.
Britain has more than a million CCTV cameras, and the numbers are
increasing all the time. Every day someone living in London will typically encounter
more than 300 cameras. Shops, restaurants, bus stops, housing estates and office entrances are all covered. Perhaps the most scrutinised area in Britain is
the City of London, which cloaked itself in a "ring of steel" security cordon following the IRA bombs of 1992 and 1993. Cameras mounted at entry points take snapshots of number plates and identify suspect vehicles - all in the space
of four seconds.
The Automatic Number Plate Reader has directly led to more than 500
arrests since February 1997, when it was introduced. In one case an alleged rapist
was arrested after driving through a City checkpoint. The police had been
searching for him for more than two years. Many cases relate to stolen cars, details
of which are logged in the Police National Computer.
The proliferation of CCTV cameras within the Square Mile enables City
police to track suspects. In one case officers on the ground lost sight of some burglary suspects. They were picked up later on CCTV, enabling the police
to close in and make arrests. Cameras zoom in and out, swivel through 360
degrees and are fitted with lights, enabling round-the-clock monitoring.
The next logical step is face-recognition technology, in which the faces
of the driver and front-seat passenger will be scanned through a
photo-database. Tests are continuing with the system, which is called Mandrake.
The workplace itself is laden with potential snares for the unwary.
Office e-mails can be tapped into and retrieved months after they have been
deleted. Some firms employ software to screen e-mails for trigger words, alerting managers to possible theft of confidential information.
Tim Allen of Lee & Allen, a London investigations firm, says: "People
get to work in the morning, switch on their computer because they're on e-mail and leave it on for the entire day. It is monitoring everything from the moment
you arrive to the moment that you leave."
City firms routinely record telephone calls - ostensibly in case dealing orders are queried by clients. Employees can never be quite certain whether someone is listening in.
The sensation of being watched extends to routine chores such as
shopping or planning a holiday. Ring up for a brochure and you will be asked for your postcode. Give the postcode and they will tell you your street name. Where
does it all come from?
There are four principal sources: the Post Office, for addresses and postcodes; BT for telephone numbers; the electoral register for matching
names to properties; and Ordnance Survey for local street maps. The databases
have been digitised, allowing computers to match and cross-reference details.
Millions of Britons sign up for store loyalty cards, allowing retailers
to build an accurate picture of their spending habits. Which? magazine, which looked at loyalty cards last year, found widespread concern about what
companies might do with the personal information on their files. The shops say they
use it to help with marketing and buying strategies. However, names and addresses
are sold on for use in mailshots. Companies which keep personal details on
computer must register with the Data Protection Registrar, which says: "Supermarkets
do hold quite a detailed bank of information about customers. It is an area
that we intend to keep an eye on."
Anthony Capstick, managing director of Instant Search, which runs
business searches, says perceptions are sometimes exaggerated. "A popular belief is
that there is a computer 'out there' which is all seeing and all knowing," he
says. "The reality is that there are many computers which hold different types of information about you. Some are connected and some are not."
Liz Parratt, campaigns officer for Liberty, the human rights
organisation, says there are several issues to be addressed. "Many of these technologies
have developed very rapidly and have thus outstripped the pace of regulation. Surveillance technology is promoted as the universal solution to crime, but
this really needs to be kept in proportion. CCTV, for example, can be useful in
detection - as we have recently seen - but in crime prevention terms it's
often better at protecting property than people and some studies have shown that
it can displace rather than reduce crime."
Mobile phones, like e-mails, carry the illusion of being private and
secure when in fact they are nothing of the kind. Not only can conversations be listened into using radio scanners - remember the Camilla tapes? - but the signal acts as a homing mechanism.
When a mobile (or cellphone) is switched on, the network can identify
the zone - or cell - in which it falls. The signal can be triangulated by
taking a fix from different base stations.
Global Trak International, based in California, is also promoting a
range of 'homing' bracelets, including KidTrak for children and SeniorTrak for the elderly. Fitting granny with an electronic ball and chain -now there's an