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About A Week: We Are Watching You!

Peter Hinchliffe wonders whether James Bond would be able to successfully ply his trade in modern Britain.

The country which gave the world its favourite fictional spy, James Bond, is now the most spied-upon nation on Earth.

British citizens going about their daily business are now closely watched by more than 4 million closed circuit TV cameras.

There’s a “spy’’ camera for every 14 people in the country. A fifth of all the world’s CCTV cameras are in use in the UK.

The average Londoner is monitored by cameras up to 300 times a day.

Fears of a Big Brother future are being voiced. English author George Orwell, in his novel 1984, raised the spectre of a state which knew every last detail of each of its citizens. Digital technology could allow CCTV images to be stored indefinitely. This, allied to face recognition technology, makes it possible for the authorities to pinpoint a person’s exact location at any given time.

Millions walk around in Britain’s cities, towns and villages either unaware or oblivious to the fact they are being filmed. I understand that around 200 cameras keep watch on the centre of my home town, which has a population of 130,000, but I am unaware of the location of even one of them.

Cameras have been used to spy on dogs as well as humans. Gosport Borough Council in Hampshire admitted that some of its employees, equipped with digital cameras and binoculars, had been spying on dog walkers.

An official of the council was quoted as saying, "We have strategically placed members of our enforcement team to blend in with the natural environment and observe people walking dogs. They are using digital cameras to get hard evidence. Dog fouling is a real issue and in this case it is happening close to a leisure facility where children play."

Some councils have also placed cameras in tins and piles of twigs to catch people illegally tipping rubbish.

In the city of Middlesbrough CCTV cameras observe citizens. Some of them berate people who are seen to be behaving badly. Control room operators who observe an antisocial act – anything from dropping an empty beer can to a brawl – can send a verbal warning via the “talking’’ cameras: “We are watching you.’’

“It is one hell of a deterrent. It's one thing to know that there are CCTV cameras about, but it's quite another when they loudly point out what you have just done wrong,’’ said the system manager. “Most people are so ashamed and embarrassed at being caught they quickly slink off without further trouble.’’

The UK’s Information Commissioner Richard Thomas told Members of Parliament that talking CCTV cameras may be a "bridge too far".

Although CCTV cameras are popular with the law-abiding public who seem them as a deterrent to crime and bad behaviour, Mr Thomas said their effectiveness was not proven.

He said that people should be made aware of the location of CCTV cameras, possibly by means of a website map. He also expressed alarm about the potential for tiny cameras to be "buried" in lamp posts.

Mr Thomas stressed, "We would be hostile to the suggestion of any sort of microphones in relation to cameras... we think that would be unacceptable."

Besides the CCTV cameras monitoring UK folk as they walk around, there are more than 6,000 static cameras which check up on them as they drive around.

These cameras are there to catch drivers who exceed the speed limits. But cameras are now also being installed to spot those who “run’’ a red traffic light.

More than two million speeding tickets are issued to motorists each year. The number of tickets has dramatically increased since the Labour Government came into power in 1997 and expanded the network of cameras which photograph speeders.

Now three times more speeding fines are imposed than was the case in 1997. Those fines raise 120 million pounds a year ($240 million) -- most of which is ploughed back into operating the cameras.’’

British motorists are now facing steeply rising petrol and diesel costs. The posted prices outside filling stations seem to increase daily. It now costs around 80 pounds ($160) to fill a 60 litre tank.

Some drivers, having filled their tanks, are doing “runners’’ – driving off without paying.

Yet another electronic monitoring device is ready to catch them. Some garage owners are installing “stingers’’ to puncture the tyres of would-be petrol thieves.

A cashier activates the device after a sensor near the pump detects a vehicle attempting to leave without paying. Red lights flash at the entrance and loudspeakers broadcast a warning telling all drivers on the forecourt that their tyres will be destroyed if they attempt to leave.

Any driver who ignores the warning will trigger a row of metal spikes as the front wheels pass over pressure pads.

By the way, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ian Fleming, the quintessentially English author who created the intrepid character James Bond, was on May 28th.

One wonders if Bond would have been quite so successful in pursuing his secretive profession in his own country in these days of “spying’’ CCTV cameras.


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