According to the most recent figures, the United Kingdom has the dubious honour of having the most CCTV cameras per head of any country in the world; the British Security Industry Authority has claimed that there is one camera for every 11-14 people. While these figures are shocking in and of themselves, the fact they are nearly five years old—from a time before the wider proliferation of smartphones, body-worn videos, and drones—suggests that we are living in a golden age of surveillance.
A report published in January says that £2.2 billion is spent on video surveillance systems each year, and the ubiquity of CCTV cameras—estimates suggest a total of nearly 6 million, with the majority being privately owned—seems set to continue. CCTV systems have their uses; 95% of murder cases investigated by Scotland Yard, for example, use footage as crucial evidence, and it has become invaluable for traffic offences.
But how were these cameras used at CCTV’s inception, and what technological advancements have led to the camera-strewn landscape we live in today?
The early years of CCTV in Britain
CCTV was originally introduced to Britain’s streets as a temporary measure for overseeing crowds at Trafalgar Square during a visit by the Thai Royal Family in 1960. The country’s first permanent surveillance cameras were set up the following year, in order to improve security at London’s bustling railway stations. CCTV was rolled out into other metropolitan areas in 1964, with Liverpool being one beneficiary, though some have argued that the four cameras set up in the city centre were “undoubtedly a PR exercise,” allowing the city’s police force to show off their tech savvy.
By the decade’s end, there were 67 CCTV cameras being used by fourteen different police precincts, though only four of those cameras were actually able to record footage. At the same time, Marie Van Brittan Brown’s patent for the first CCTV-integrated home security system was approved in the US.
This was an early prototype for what became the electronic entry systems we know today, though Van Brittan Brown probably would have been unable to predict how they would evolve nearly half a century later. As one security company notes, access control systems have become more versatile, and can keep an entire property safe as opposed to merely covering a single door.
CCTV goes mainstream
After becoming more widespread in the seventies—with cameras being set up at football stadiums, tube stations and motorways—technology evolved to meet the demand. Video storage became vastly more reliable and accessible in the eighties, leading the government to install 500 new cameras per week.
The ability to film and view multiple high quality cameras at once, a technique known as digital multiplexing, and the introduction of cameras that filmed in colour, ushered in the nineties’ golden age of CCTV. Cameras could be found in public areas, as well as in the more confined quarters of ATMs, with the Home Office spending over £200m on CCTV systems between 1994 and 1999.
Getting connected: CCTV, the internet and the future
In recent years, CCTV has become more of a feature of urban living than anyone could have ever expected; wifi connectivity and cloud storage has given surveillance experts more footage than they could even review. The Metropolitan Police has noted that its ubiquity has led to a “small, but statistically significant, reduction in crime”, particularly in car parks and on public transport.
While CCTV has drawn criticism from some corners, particularly in the wake of the current Government’s “Snoopers’ Charter”, the usage of CCTV systems is a proven deterrent in the majority of crimes. Considering the majority of cameras are privately-owned, the most important thing for the future of CCTV is that owners address any issues which may render their cameras illegal, such as camera positioning. It is essential that CCTV systems adhere to all current legal requirements if the footage is to be used as evidence in court.
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