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U.K.'s Mounting, Controversial Video Surveillance


If you think there are too many surveillance cameras watching us here in the U.S., ponder this - there's an estimated one camera for every 11 people in Britain. Privacy advocates say only Beijing has more cameras trained on its people. The British government recently appointed a surveillance camera commissioner to respond to public concern that the cameras are intrusive and often ineffective in combating crime. NPR's Leila Fadel sent this report.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: OK, so I am leaving for work for the day and I'm just going to count the number of cameras I see on my 30-minute commute to work.

The first camera's in the hallway of my apartment building, then the elevator, then the lobby. By the time I walk the 10 minutes to London's underground subway, the Tube, I've spotted 12 video cameras.

Just coming into the Tube, there are eight cameras facing you as you come off the escalator. So that puts me at 20, 21, 22. So now I'm just coming up to the door of the building. On my about 30-minute commute to work, I saw over 80 cameras - video cameras.

And that's pretty typical, says Dan Nesbit, research director of Big Brother Watch, an advocacy group pushing for less video surveillance in the U.K.

DAN NESBIT: It's not really a healthy society when you can look round seeing so many cameras just looking back at you. They are a massive waste of money when they're not being effective.

FADEL: There are between four and six million surveillance cameras in Britain. On average, Nesbit says, people are caught on tape between 70 and 300 times a day. The cameras are everywhere. But as Nesbit says, there's a question about how effective they really are. Jonathan Bamford works at the Information Commissioner's Office, which is responsible for data protection law in England and Wales.

JONATHAN BAMFORD: It's probably not something that I'm proud to boast about us, as a Brit, that we lead the world in. But I think we must be very close to the top of the league table.

FADEL: Bamford says there are times the cameras are misused, like when the police tweeted an image of a famous comedian they spotted in central London or when his office had to stop one local council from fitting taxis with cameras that also recorded everyone's conversation. The videos can sometimes help apprehend criminals.

BAMFORD: The public seems to feel more reassured if they think there's some form of CCTV surveillance in town centers.

FADEL: But he says studies show video surveillance in large public areas doesn't seem to have a deterrent effect on criminals. A simple streetlight is often more helpful. Privacy advocates in Britain are questioning the widespread use of video cameras. The government recently appointed Tony Porter to be the surveillance camera commissioner.

TONY PORTER: I think there's a piece of work that needs to be done on the cost value of CCTV as it affects law enforcement and the civil judicial process.

FADEL: Every surveillance camera that operates in the U.K. needs to have a real purpose, Porter says, otherwise it's invasive, expensive and provides nothing to society. Leila Fadel, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.