The price of privacy : Councils spend half a billion pounds on CCTV in four years

Our latest report highlights the cost to local authorities of their CCTV operations – £515m in the past four years.

There are now at least 51,600 CCTV cameras controlled by local authorities, with five councils now operating more than 1,000 cameras. In comparison, £515m would put an extra 4,121 police constables on the streets – the equivalent of Northumbria police’s entire force.

The picture varies massively across the country, as you can see from our interactive map below, the huge increase in surveillance has not been a co-ordinated and intelligence-led response to crime, but a haphazard and badly measured rush to spy on citizens. The variations in how much councils were able to tell us, and the wide range of different structures in place to manage and monitor cameras, highlights the need for a national review of CCTV and its regulation.

As part of the report, we are calling for five changes to improve the way CCTV is regulated and evaluated. We believe the Government should:

  • Give the CCTV regulator the powers to enforce the code of practice
  • Require any publicly funded CCTV installation to refer to crime statistics or demonstrate a significant risk of harm before being commenced
  • Require public bodies to publish the instances where their CCTV cameras have been used in securing a conviction, and for what offences 
  • Require public bodies to publish in a standardised format the locations of their cameras (save for those used in direct protection of sites at risk of terrorism)
  • Begin a consultation on regulating private CCTV cameras, both those operated by commercial companies and by private individuals

You can download  the full report now.

Britain has an out-of-control surveillance culture that is doing little to improve public safety but has made our cities the most watched in the world. Figures suggest that Britain is home to 20% of the world’s population of CCTV cameras, despite being home to just 1% of the world’s population. One study suggested the average Londoner is caught on camera more than 300 times every day.

Surveillance is an important tool in modern policing but it is not a substitute for policing. In too many cities across the country every corner has a camera but only a few ever see a police officer. Seven local authorities now have more CCTV cameras than Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds combined.

Despite millions of cameras, Britain’s crime rate is not significantly lower than comparable countries that do not have such a vast surveillance state.

In an age of squeezed budgets, councils continue to pour huge amounts of money into technology that indiscriminately monitors us all as potential criminals, while the actual causes of crime go ignored. Britain has become one of the most ‘watched’ societies in the world, far outstripping some authoritarian regimes, and the fervour with which some groups defend their ‘right’ to monitor us all is a social ill that few would recognise as a sign of a healthy, civil society.

When a camera is being installed, and when decisions are being made to replace them, all we are asking is that the evidence be considered. If, as we found recently with Transport for London, 9 in 10 cameras are not used by the police, then there can be little justification for continuing to divert significant resources away from alternatives which would do more to improve public safety without the wholesale invasion on our privacy that CCTV entails.

The price of this surveillance is more than just money, but a fundamental part of a free and fair society.