There are two distinct schools of thought when it comes to CCTV monitoring of our lives. It is a necessary tension, for without those who raise the issue of privacy and our right to live an unexamined life, we could be much closer to the Big Brother society that George Orwell predicted back in 1949.
As it is, there are strict laws that govern the installation of CCTV cameras on premises, and the public have the right to see footage of themselves held by any company who has filmed them. Those filmed records cannot be held indefinitely, and by law must be destroyed as soon as a reasonable period of time has elapsed. The record of our movements will not be used against us unless a crime has been committed, and the use of such footage in criminal cases must be authorised by a judge. There are safeguards in place, in other words, such that we should feel confident that we are not being ‘spied upon’ gratuitously by the state or commercial organisations. We are free to wander at will and behave as we wish, providing we act within the law.
Advantages of CCTV camera systems.
There are undoubtedly huge advantages to the deployment of CCTV camera systems. Their use in deterring crime is hard to prove, but is thought to be extremely effective. Customers entering a shop who know they are being filmed are significantly less likely to steal. Members of the public who know that CCTV is continuously monitoring a hospital waiting room are less likely to assault staff. CCTV makes all our lives safer, since it can spot accidents as they happen – for example on the motorway – and send help immediately. It undoubtedly saves lives. Missing people are found, criminals are traced and accidents prevented with the use of CCTV. Householders feel safer and are more protected if they have CCTV security systems installed in their homes. Businesses, and with them livelihoods, are protected from theft and monetary loss by the use of CCTV security systems. Overall, the advantages of surveillance outweigh the disadvantages for most of us.
Disadvantages of CCTV systems
“Those who give up liberty for safety deserve neither, “said Benjamin Franklin, and opponents of a surveillance society agree with him. They acknowledge the advantages of CCTV systems, but feel that a broader issue of freedom of the individual outweighs this public good. Some dispute the efficacy of CCTV in preventing crime, and there have been some respectable university led studies that back their case. They argue that CCTV is giving the public a false sense of security, and that its use is part of a wider strategy to reduce the number of front line police patrolling the streets. Broader still is the argument that the introduction of CCTV across the country damages the relationship between citizen and state. Sir John Smith, former Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, sounded a warning note on this issue in 1995. His caution about increased surveillance is widely shared.
Balance between our right to privacy and our right to be safe
There is clearly a balance that needs to be struck between our right to privacy and our right to be safe. There is certainly anecdotal proof that CCTV cameras deter crime, and we know that CCTV footage is often used in the prosecution of crime. The high specification HD CCTV footage that can be presented in court can conclusively prove the identity of suspects and save courts time and money, and deliver justice swiftly. Current legislation governing the use of CCTV cameras is stringent, and provides safeguards for the public. The expansion of surveillance into all areas of our lives is, however, an important debate and one that will continue to divide opinion.