Look who's talking: Britain's 'Big Brother'

Britain is turning to talking cameras to curb anti-social behavior. But more police and better street lighting may do more to stop crime.

In "1984," British writer George Orwell envisaged a nightmare future. The population labors under 24-hour video surveillance, every action analyzed under the baleful eye of "Big Brother" and a vicious "Thought Police." Interactive telescreens observe, browbeat, and facilitate the arrest of dissidents. Public loudspeakers blare constantly, hectoring and extolling the virtues of social solidarity.

With recent developments, British reality is imitating Mr. Orwell's dystopian art.

The government plans to roll out a network of "talking CCTV" cameras – the latest attempt to get the country's flourishing antisocial hoodlum culture under control. Home Secretary John Reid this month announced a £500,000 plan for 20 loudspeaker cameras to be installed in antisocial hot spots across the country. Based on experience gained in the city of Middlesbrough, council workers watching banks of screens will now be able to broadcast warnings to litter louts, drunks, or those otherwise causing street nuisances.

Since coming to power in 1997, the Labour government says it has recruited more than 14,000 new police officers and 11,000 "community support officers" (basically street wardens with powers of arrest). It has introduced flagship control order measures such as Anti-Social Behavioral Orders (ASBOs for short) for persistent offenders and talked tough.

But real results have been slow in coming. Since 1999, ASBOs have been more honored in the breach than the observance. And other proposals, such as the use of night courts and punishing drunks by marching them to ATMs and making them withdraw funds to pay a fine, have been withdrawn in the face of high-profile public criticism. Police forces across Britain continue to be hard pressed each and every weekend, dealing with alcohol-fueled thuggery.

Stuff of satire, or stuff of civil liberty nightmares, the new "speaker-cams" are probably here to stay and will probably sprout in ever-increasing numbers. Despite mixed results, Britain has embraced anticrime technologies such as CCTV with an unrivaled zeal.

Although crime surveys suggest that improved street lighting cuts crime more effectively than cameras, Britain is today the world's most watched nation. An estimated 4.2 million CCTV cameras now monitor Britons, 20 percent of all such cameras on earth.

In London, pedestrians can expect to be caught on camera up to 300 times each day. The police say CCTV is an invaluable tool in their fight against crime. Critics, such as the British government's privacy watchdog, The Information Commissioner's Office, say the country is fast becoming a "surveillance society."

But it seems ludicrous to expect the real malefactors on litter-strewn British streets to take much notice of talking CCTV warnings – the equivalent of a yellow card in soccer. Real results actually require many more police officers walking British streets, better street lighting, and a zero tolerance blitz on street crime as practiced in New York by former mayor Rudy Giuliani. In any case, Big Brother scenarios aside, one hopes the technology is up to scratch, else the new additions may become the butt of ridicule.

Inaudible and unintelligible speaker announcements – already the bane of many commuters' lives on Britain's creaky transport system – are unlikely to make much difference to a Briton inebriated on a Saturday night.

Ronan Thomas is a journalist based in London.

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