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Cops and Home Office plot uber-CCTV network

Tracking all of the people, all of the time

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You know in the movies or on the telly, where the sinister (Bourne) or perhaps heroic (Spooks) government agents are thinking about a problem somewhere?

The person in charge often barks something like "Is there any CCTV?"

Some kind of minion - perhaps dressed and coiffured like a tramp to indicate technical competence - quickly rattles away on a keyboard. And then, within seconds, bingo - the boss is looking at live images of a given street, often with sufficient resolution to identify faces.

Scary stuff - though old Jason Bourne usually gets away, and often turns the tables on the watchers.

A lot of people believe that this sort of capability already exists in the UK, widely described as the most watched country in the world. The headline figure which probably sank deepest into the public consciousness was that Londoners get videoed or snapped by camera systems 300 times each day; surely enough for sharply-dressed Spooks in their shiny offices to watch us without ever leaving Thames House.

That's all cobblers, according to a new report released last week under the joint auspices of top-cop talkshop ACPO and the Home Office. National CCTV Strategy (big pdf) says that the reality is rather different. Most of the cameras that record us produce grainy images insufficient to identify a face, it seems. In many cases, supposing we have committed a crime, the plods won't ever become aware of the existence of useful recordings before they get overwritten.

If they do find out about the records, it won't be a lovely lightning process in a high-tech office. Rather, a copper standing at a crime scene will normally spot a camera, go to see its owner, physically seize some recordings, get them put onto a VHS cassette, and then laboriously sit and watch loads of tape to see if there is anything of use. The vast majority of British CCTV systems are privately owned, according to the report's authors; and even in the case of public systems, only rarely do plods or other executive agencies have any remote hookup. It's far more normal for footsore investigators to trudge round and collect evidence by hand, even with council cameras. It seems that in many cases likely suspects have to be bailed because CCTV footage can't be got hold of quickly enough.

As for Bourne-style real-time action, that seems to be almost fantasy. Local authority CCTV operators monitoring town centres strive for pro-active or quick-reactive capability, but often enough don't even have access to the police radio net - they have to phone up like everyone else. And it isn't uncommon for "roaming" work using pan/tilt/zoom cameras to later lead to complaints because the camera could have been trained on a known troublespot the whole time but wasn't, or because it didn't record a known incident for evidence purposes.

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