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This page looks at the "privatisation" of public space through
closed circuit television (CCTV) in streets and other places. It
also considers questions posed by the use of webcams, phonecams
and ANPR systems.
It covers -
cctv and the privatisation of public space
video surveillance legislation
Use of closed circuit television cameras by government agencies
(police, hospitals, schools, rail and road authorities) and
private bodies (retailers, taxi operators, private security
services) continues to increase.
In the UK it has been claimed that the average citizen is
captured by 300 cameras each day, that there were around 1.5
million cameras in 400 communities as of 2002 (with 40,000
operated by local government, up from 100 in 1990), and that
distinctions between private and public space are eroding.
In January 2004 Clive Norris suggested that the number of
cameras had risen to "at least" 4,285,000, supposedly making
Britain the most-watched nation in the world, with estimates
that the UK accounts for one-fifth of all CCTV cameras
worldwide. In 2005 the London transportation system reported
that it had 6,000 cameras across its network, with 9,000 planned
by 2010. Images from the cameras - few of which were digital and
many apparently in poor condition - were typically kept for 14
days before being erased or taped over. As of 2005 the NSW
government reported that there were 7,000 cameras in Sydney
Felix Stalder, in his 2002 paper on The Voiding of Privacy
(PDF), suggests that
Most contemporary conceptions of privacy are based on a notion
of a separation between the individual and the environment. On
the one side of this boundary lies "the private", on the other
lies "the public". The boundary, or gap, between the two spheres
is controlled by the individual. Invasion of privacy means the
intrusion of a "public" actor into the realm of the "private"
without the individual's consent. This notion is clearly visible
in the approach to privacy prevalent in Europe, particularly in
Germany. Here, privacy is translated into "informational
self-determination", that is, the right of individuals to police
the boundary, to decide themselves which information they are
willing to disclose under what conditions. Such a conception of
privacy, far from being universal, is in fact historically
specific. Its rise (and decline) is part of a particular
cultural condition connected to the dominance of print media
from the 16th to the 20th century. As electronic communications
rise in importance, print culture, part of which is the notion
of privacy, erodes.
Others, particularly in the US, have noted traditional thinking
that privacy is restricted to what goes on behind closed doors
or in your head. It does not embrace activity in public space or
that might be observed from public space (eg from an adjacent
rooftop or via an aerial photograph).
One web cam vendor crowed that with video, there's not a whole
lot of restrictions. You can do it anywhere except where someone
can reasonably expect privacy ... I can basically follow you
around all day, as long as I don't follow you into a public
restroom or something. [Debate about photography in private and
semi-private places - and pointers to judgments such as
exemplary damages of US$500 million to 46 athletes filmed
without their knowledge by cameras hidden in restrooms, locker
rooms and showers - features in a note elsewhere on this site.]
David Banisar of EPIC responded that just because you're walking
down a public street doesn't mean that the government or any
other person should have the right to follow you around wherever
you go and take notes of who you see and what you do.
In the US state and federal courts have generally disagreed with
that comment, particularly where surveillance was conducted by
Eugene Volokh thus notes the First Amendment in commenting that
the chief protection we have against intrusive news-gathering,
then, is traditional real property law: we can keep people off
our property but we can't keep them off the public sidewalk,
even if they're gathering embarrassing information about us
The Canadian Privacy Commissioner had a different view,
consistent with Canada's human rights and privacy regime, in
criticising local government use of CCTV as a breach of the
federal privacy legislation.
He commented (PDF) that
If we cannot walk or drive down the street without being
systematically monitored by the cameras of the state, our lives
and our society will be irretrievably altered. The psychological
impact of having to live in a sense of constantly being observed
must surely be enormous, indeed incalculable. We will have to
adapt, and adapt we undoubtedly will. But something profoundly
precious - our right to feel anonymous and private as we go
about our day-to-day lives will have been lost forever.
David Brin's The Transparent Society (Reading: Perseus Books
1998), noted earlier in this guide, suggests that the problem
with surveillance of public places is one of equity. 'They'
observe us (and can integrate that observation with databases
that have significant impacts on our lives). 'We' are observed
but often aren't aware of being observed, have no choice in
being observed and - more importantly - aren't in a position to
watch the watchers or use our knowledge about their observation.
One response has been street theatre such as World Sousveillance
Day (WSD) and suggestions from cyberlibertarians such as John
Gilmore that the 'watched' invade the privacy of the watchers
(or merely those unlucky enough to live in the vicinity).
Another has been a range of mapping exercises by community
groups, including the EU Urbaneye Project ("On the Threshold to
Urban Panopticon?"), the Washington DC Observing Surveillance
Project and iSee in New York. The anarchists at RTMark offer a
Guide to CCTV Destruction, perhaps reflecting Reg Whitaker's
overheated The End of Privacy: How Total Surveillance Is
Becoming A Reality (New York: New Press 1999). Arthur
Cockfield's 2001 Who Watches the Watchers? (PDF) highlights some
regulatory issues; others are explored in the 'CCTV Issue' (Vol
2/3) of Surveillance & Society
Brin's assessment is broadly endorsed by Joshua Meyrowitz in No
Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social
Behaviour (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 1986), The Spy in the Coffee
Machine: (The End of Privacy as We Know It) (Oxford: One World
2008) by Kieron O'Hara & Nigel Shadbolt and Ross Clark's The
Road to Southend Pier (Petersfield: Harriman House 2007). There
is a more nuanced analysis of issues and responses in The
Electronic Eye: The Rise of the Surveillance Society
(Minneapolis: Uni of Minnesota Press 1994), in Surveillance
Society: Monitoring Everyday Life (Buckingham: Open Uni Press
2001) and in Surveillance as Social Sorting: Privacy, Risk &
Digital Discrimination (London: Routledge 2002) by David Lyon.
There is a less philosophical analysis in Surveillance, Closed
Circuit Television & Social Control (Aldershot: Ashgate 1998)
edited by Clive Norris, Jade Moran & Gary Armstrong and in The
Maximum Surveillance Society: The Rise of CCTV (Oxford: Berg
1999) by Clive Norris.
Background on the uptake of CCTV in the US is provided by the
2002 report on Public & Private Applications of Video
Surveillance and Biometric Technologies (PDF) by Marcus Nieto,
Kimberly Johnston-Dodds & Charlene Simmons.
For Australia a starting point is provided by the report of the
Australian Institute of Criminology Comparative Study of
Establishment & Operation of Public CCTV in Australia, the
associated 2003 Open-street CCTV in Australia (PDF) report by
Dean Wilson & Adam Sutton, their 2004 Open-Street CCTV in
Australia: The Politics of Resistance and Expansion (PDF) and
the 2005 note An overview of the effectiveness of closed circuit
television (CCTV) surveillance by Nigel Brew of the federal
Jeffrey Rosen in The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and
Freedom in an Anxious Age (New York: Random House 2004) comments
CCTV cameras have a mysterious knack for justifying themselves
regardless of what happens to crime. When crime goes up, the
cameras get credit for detecting it, and when crime goes down,
they get the credit for preventing it.
There is no consensus on the effectiveness of public CCTV as a
deterrent or an effective mechanism for responding to crime,
although there are strong suggestions that the technological fix
is overrated and oversold. Organisations responding to the "need
to be doing something" are susceptible to spending money on
equipment acquisition and deployment without appropriate
investment in ongoing monitoring.
In practice the value of CCTV is often forensic - as a tool for
identifying what happened - rather preventive, something that is
unsurprising as some images are not closely monitored ("no one
is actually watching what's seen by the eye in the sky"), image
quality is poor or devices are not working, and help is not
readily at hand if the observer does identify an incident.
Bruce Schneier commented in 2008 that
To some, it's comforting to imagine vigilant police monitoring
every camera, but the truth is very different. Most CCTV footage
is never looked at until well after a crime is committed. When
it is examined, it's very common for the viewers not to identify
suspects. Lighting is bad and images are grainy, and criminals
tend not to stare helpfully at the lens. Cameras break far too
often. The best camera systems can still be thwarted by
sunglasses or hats. Even when they afford quick identification —
think of the 2005 London transport bombers and the 9/11
terrorists — police are often able to identify suspects without
the cameras. Cameras afford a false sense of security,
encouraging laziness when we need police to be vigilant.
The solution isn't for police to watch the cameras. Unlike an
officer walking the street, cameras only look in particular
directions at particular locations. Criminals know this, and can
easily adapt by moving their crimes to someplace not watched by
a camera — and there will always be such places. Additionally,
while a police officer on the street can respond to a crime in
progress, the same officer in front of a CCTV screen can only
dispatch another officer to arrive much later. By their very
nature, cameras result in underused and misallocated police
Examples of the literature are the 1999 paper by Jason Ditton,
Emma Short, Clive Norris et al on The effect of closed circuit
television cameras on recorded crime rates and public concern
about crime in Glasgow, a broader 2001 study of Sydney, the 2002
UK Home Office report (PDF) by Brandon Welsh & David Farrington
on Crime Prevention Effects of Closed Circuit Television: A
Systematic Review, David Flaherty's 1998 report Video
surveillance by Public Bodies, papers in Surveillance of Public
Space: CCTV, Street Lighting and Crime Prevention (Monsey:
Criminal Justice Press 1999) edited by Kate Painter & Nick
Tilley, the 2008 study CCTV Camera Evaluation: The crime
reduction effects of public CCTV cameras in the City of
Philadelphia, PA installed during 2006 (PDF) by Jerry Ratcliffe
& Travis Taniguchi.
video surveillance legislation
Most legislation regarding video surveillance has centred on its
use in the workplace and its use by government agencies or
commercial operators on a covert basis within private spaces,
rather than use in public spaces.
That reflects uncertainty about "reasonable expectations of
privacy" and whether privacy and public space are antithetical,
along with perceptions that problems can be addressed through
existing privacy or other legislation.
The Australian regime (outlined here and discussed in more
detail in a supplementary profile) at the federal and state
levels includes the 1998 NSW Workplace Video Surveillance Act (WVSA)
and a range of state/teritory listening or surveillance device
enactments noted here.
The regime reflects reports such as the 1995 Invisible Eyes
study by the NSW Privacy Committee and 2001 NSW Law Reform
Commission Surveillance report. The Victorian Law Reform
Commission is due to report in 2003 on public and workplace
Overseas the UK House of Commons Culture, Media & Sport
committee announced in December 2002 an investigation of privacy
and media regulation, following criticism of paparazzi, calls
for rights of publicity legislation and claims that there are no
UK legislative restrictions on the provision to media or other
users of of CCTV recordings made by government agencies or
private bodies surveilling 'public' areas.
The UK currently requires registration under the 1998 Data
Protection Act of those CCTV systems that "process data"; the
Act and Human Rights Act 1998 articulate principles for consent
(eg signs in carparks and retail premises) and data handling.
An overview of developments across the EU is provided in
Urbaneye's 2002 On the Threshold to Urban Panopticon: Analysing
the Employment of CCTV in European Cities and Assessing its
Social & Political Impacts paper (PDF).
The Public & Private Applications report (PDF) by Nieto,
Johnston-Dodds & Simmons noted above highlights US legislation.
Theorist Jim Cross argues that
a webcam in your own home is a voluntary rendering public of
what would normally be private, a throwing open of your house to
an indeterminately large and anonymous public. I would suggest
that this needs to be seen in a communal context: this is not a
case of one person throwing their world open for public
inspection but, rather, joining the ranks of people who are
making a relatively high profile appearance on the Web. How far
this makes them a member of a Web 'community' hinges to a large
extent on what is understood by that term. But I suspect the
idea of 'sharing' is important in understanding what is going on
As with blogs, a case of 'in the future everyone will be famous
to 15 people, rather than for 15 seconds' and "surveillant
narcissism"? What of webcams in public places (rather than dinky
little cameras set up by the proud owners of coffee pots or to
allow the community to share in the bedroom gymnastics)?
Opinions are divided, with most observers suggesting that the
low resolution and lack of contextual information mean that
images captured on many webcams in public places - such as those
developed by Earthcam - don't breach the letter or spirit of
privacy law. That may change, however, as more consumers go onto
broadband and imaging technology improves.
One disturbing example is the 'abortioncam.com' dispute,
involving several sites - of which the abortioncam.com is the
most prominent - that have positioned high-quality webcams
opposite womens' health centres and other medical facilities.
The sites have featured images of visitors to those locations,
in some instances along with identifying information such as
vehicle license plate numbers and more specific data such as the
name of an individual patient, her medical records, town and age
of her child.
Breach of privacy under US law? No, the cameras cover public
space and distribution of the images is protected as free
speech, say some observers such as Eugene Volokh. Others suggest
that the cams cannot legitimately claim a 'public interest'
defence and that mere disclosure of recourse to medical help is
likely breach protection under HIPAA of medical record data.
Another example, noted here, here and in Michael Clements' 2005
paper Virtually Free from Punishment until Proven Guilty: The
Internet, Web-Cameras and the Compelling Necessity Standard
(PDF) was installation of a webcam in the Maricopa (Arizona)
jail jail, with visitors to the jail site initially having
unrestricted views of people being booked, strip searched or
visiting the bathroom.
phone and other cams
US and other law is currently grappling with voyeurcams,
upskirtcams and other nasties in notes on the Adult Content
industry and on Unauthorised Photography.
Uptake of digital cameras and more recently camera-equipped
phones (now estimated to comprise around 25% of the 600 million
or so mobile phones sold each year) has driven internet access
to 'up skirt', 'down blouse' or other voyeur genres - typically
surreptitious photos taken under the doors of lavatory cubicles
or in a public shower or change room. The technology has allowed
amateurs and professionals to take snaps of unsuspecting men,
women and children, which can then be published on the net
without major difficulty.
The amount of photographing and its audience is unclear.
Projectvoyeur.com, claimed as a pioneering free site, supposedly
attracts over 600,000 visitors a day.
Responses have varied. South Korea has moved to restrict sales
of camera phones to models that beep when pictures are taken.
Other jurisdictions have more effectively been banned the
devices from pools, gyms, change-rooms, lavatories, schools and
One introduction is provided in Camera Phone Obsession (Phoenix:
Paraglyph Press 2004) by Peter Aitken.
Automated number plate recognition (ANPR) systems, discussed in
more detail here, collect digital images of vehicle registration
numbers for real time or retrospective matching with official
That collection and matching can be for traffic congestion
pricing and road safety purposes (eg to detect vehicles that are
breaking speed limits). It may instead be used for other law
enforcement purposes, with for example real time matching
against 'hotlists' of stolen vehicles and those 'of interest'
regarding offences such as burglary, kidnapping, drug
trafficking and terrorism.
APNR cameras are often coupled with other image capture systems,
so that for example a vehicle can be tracked by video across a
precinct after initial recognition or a photograph can be taken
of the driver and passenger on the basis of a traveler watchlist.