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Report: London no safer for all its CCTV cameras

Civil rights group Big Brother Watch has accused Britain of having an out-of-control surveillance culture that is doing little to improve public safety.

By Ian EvansCorrespondent / February 22, 2012

Security personnel monitor close-circuit televisions, which are being used to monitor police operations at the four sites of Thursday's explosions in central London, from the Central Command Complex at New Scotland Yard in 2005.

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London

London is considered the most spied-on city in the world, courtesy of its ubiquitous CCTV cameras, purportedly there to reduce crime. But according to a recent report, there's been little or no change in London's crime rates since they were more widely installed in the mid 1980s.

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Privacy activists are worried that Britain will become the bleak totalitarian society George Orwell painted in his classic novel “1984,” where citizens were spied on and personal freedom sacrificed for the benefit of an all-powerful state.

“We are sleepwalking into a surveillance society where we’re watched from control rooms by anonymous people, says Emma Carr of the BBW. “The worrying thing is that we don’t actually know how many CCTV cameras there are out there."

In the report released this week, civil rights pressure group Big Brother Watch revealed that local councils spent £515 million (about $807 million) on new cameras over the past four years, the equivalent of 4,121 police officers. Birmingham, England’s second most populous city, has spent the most: £14.3 million ($22 million) over past four years, followed by Westminster at £11.8 million ($18.5 million), and Leeds at £8.7 million ($13.6 million).

BBW estimates there are now some 51,000 police-run cameras watching British citizens in urban areas, not including private cameras or cameras situated in other public buildings like train stations or bus depots.

A common figure cited is a total 4.2 million cameras across the Britain based on a working paper published in 2002, by academics Michael McCahill and Clive Norris but research last year by Cheshire Police puts the figure closer to 1.85 million.

But Ms. Carr says that without official registrations and research it is impossible to calculate.

The civil rights group Liberty estimates that the average Londoner is captured on camera around 300 times a day while BBW claims Britain has 20 percent of the world’s CCTV cameras and only 1 percent of the world’s population.

There is a perception that the cameras reduce the crime rate, but there is no evidence for that, say activists. “The Met police have said that in 2008, only one crime was solved for every 1,000 CCTV cameras,” says Carr.

Charlie Masson Smith, a spokesman for Wandsworth Council, which covers the south London suburb of Balham, disagrees.

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