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CCTV steam train ignores detractors

Review concerned only 'stakeholders'

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A Police proposal to introduce a CCTV law will be published about three months late while the Home Office considers the concerns of social and civil liberties groups.

The joint review of CCTV "effectiveness" by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Home Office was drafted in consultation with CCTV operators and law enforcers last year. But it has taken the effectiveness of CCTV for granted after the role it played in the wake of the 7 July bombings.

Sarah Douglas, staff officer to Graeme Gerrard, deputy chief constable of Cheshire Constabulary and co-director of the survey, said it had been a "massive consultation [that involved] everyone you can imagine who is involved in CCTV".

Representatives of transport and retail industries, local authorities, and police anti-terrorism units formed the body of the proposals during a series of workshops held between January and October last year.

"All of them came up with similar ideas to what we've got," Douglas said. Citizen or civil liberties organisations were not consulted, and while their concerns had been taken into account "all along", they are now being considered by the Home Office, which has yet to sign the proposals off and pass them to ministers.

The proposals, revealed by The Register in November, include legislation to force all operators of CCTV equipment to upgrade it to police specifications. This would enable police to readily draw on footage and make it easier to apply emerging digital technologies such as those that automatically identify people and analyse their behaviour.

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Yet there is doubt that this would be the most effective, let alone cost-effective, means of reducing crime. A Home Office study, Assessing the impact of CCTV, was published two years ago and described how the nation's CCTV networks had been built on an unfounded belief that CCTV was effective.

The Crime Reduction Delivery Board, which commissioned the ACPO/Home Office survey, charged that they "review the current CCTV infrastructure and assess its effectiveness in terms of crime and disorder reduction and detection, taking into account developing technology and threats", the Home Office told The Register last year.

According to Gerrard's words on the draft in November, it was taken as rote after the 7 July bombings that CCTV was effective. What has become more important is whether the civilian CCTV infrastructure is adequate for police purposes. There is thought to be considerable public support for CCTV following its televised role in anti-terrorist investigations.

"That's the good thing about this issue - it has significant public support," said Douglas. "There are people in society who don't like CCTV and think it impinges on civil liberties, but most people think it makes them feel safer."

The question asked by the review, she said, was "how we improve CCTV in the next 10 years". Following the publication of the proposals - in a month,or so - will come an implementation plan, which will probably be a year in the making.

Martin Gill, professor of criminology at Leicester University, who wrote the 2005 report, was still sceptical of the Home Office plans for CCTV.

"I support CCTV, but not the mass use of it for everything," he said. "You might as well just put a policeman on every corner if you are going to approach it like that."

He acknowledged the need for concern about the effects of mass surveillance on civil society, but said there were more tangible problems, like cost: "Are they the best solution you have to the problem we've got."

There is a growing sense that the causes of crime have been neglected in the Home Office's desire to trap and punish. Gill said that a problem must be clearly defined before a solution could be proposed. But his report argued that CCTV implementations had put the cart before the horse. ®

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