So, the argument about CCTV and our big brother society rumbles on. A senior policeman, Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville of the Visual Images, Identifications and Detections Office (Viido) at New Scotland Yard, has been quoted as saying that only 3 per cent of crimes have been solved by CCTV evidence. Despite the UK having the highest per capita number of CCTVs in the world, this brave new world has failed to make us safer.
A few other police forces, and naturally the security companies flogging the kit, say that CCTV has at least dramatically reduced opportunistic crimes. Who should we believe?
What cannot be disputed is the fact that there are well over 4,000,000 CCTVs in this country, and the organisation, Privacy International, assesses that we are the most watched citizenry in Europe.
While some law-abiding citizens say they feel intimidated by CCTV and how the information could potentially be misused, most people seem not to care. In fact, the majority apparently feel safer if they can see CCTV on the streets, even if this pervasive surveillance has in no way discouraged crimes of violence. So why this gap between perception and reality?
One of my pet theories has always been to blame Big Brother. No, not the book. I have always been flummoxed by the popularity of the TV show and the plethora of reality TV spin-offs. My instinctive reaction was that it was similar to being “groomed” to accept round-the-clock intrusion into our personal lives. More than accept – desire it. The clear message is that such surveillance can lead to instant fame, wealth and access to the Z‑list parties of London. And for that we are sleep-walking into a real Orwellian nightmare.
Slightly flippant theories aside, it is interesting that one of the most cited examples of the need for CCTV was the Bishopsgate bombing in London in 1993. In this case a lorry bomb, filled with a tonne of home made explosive (HME) was detonated in the heart of the city of London by the IRA. One person was killed, many were injured, and hundreds of millions of pounds worth of damage was caused, not to mention the fact threat the IRA scored a huge publicity coup.
But this had nothing to do with the lack or otherwise of CCTV in the streets of the City. It was an intelligence failure, pure and simple.
This attack could and should have been prevented. It occurred while I was working in MI5, and it was widely known in the service at the time that the bomber should have been arrested six months before during a surveillance operation. Despite the fact that he was seen checking out another lorry bomb in storage, he was allowed to walk free and escape to the Republic of Ireland due to procedural cock-ups. Months later, he returned to the City and bombed Bishopsgate.
By relying increasingly on technologies to protect us, we are following in the footsteps of the Americans. They have always had an over-reliance on gadgets and gizmos when seeking to investigate criminals and terrorists: satellite tracking, phone taps, bugs. But this hoovering up of information is never an adequate replacement for precise investigative work. Plus, any criminal or terrorist worth their salt these days knows not to discuss sensitive plans electronically.
Scatter-gun approaches to gathering intelligence, such as blanket surveillance, still at this stage require human beings to process and assess it for evidential use. That, according to DCI Neville, is part of the problem. There is just too much coming in, not enough staff, insufficient co-operation between forces, and the job lacks perceived status within the police.
The other problem of an over-reliance on technology is that it can always be hacked. The most recent hacking has broken the RFID chips that we all carry in our passports, Oyster cards and the planned ID cards. New technologies cannot guarantee that our personal data is secure, so rather than protecting us, they make us more liable to crimes such as identity theft.
So once again national and local government bodies have rushed to buy up technology, without fully thinking through either its application or its usefulness. And without fully assessing the implications for a free society. Just because the technology exists, it does not mean that it is fit for purpose, nor that it will make us safer.