10 years ago the British enthusiasm for CCTV led to the UK being classified as the most watched nation on earth. The BBC compared UK cities’ use of CCTV to other cities round the globe. It found that Sydney had just 82 cameras while Manchester (UK) had 1,400; Paris had 326 while London had 7,400.
And Big Brother Watch found that between 1999 and 2012 the number of cameras installed by local authorities across the UK jumped from 21,000 to over 51,000, though it subsequently fell back to 45,000 by 2015, perhaps reflecting local authority budget cuts. According to Freedom of Information requests, they found that between 2007 and 2011 local authorities spent £515m installing, maintaining and monitoring CCTV cameras. And that’s just local authority controlled schemes – other estimates of the total number of cameras in the UK range from 2 million to 5 million.
The technology is getting more sophisticated over time. The Police Federation noted, for example, that CCTV camera resolution has got sharper, and that infra-red cameras for night-time use are becoming more common. Despite this apparent increase in surveillance capability, the British public seem largely accepting of it, with a 2010 YouGov survey suggesting that 84% of those polled were happy to see it used in high streets.
The traditionally accepted benefits of CCTV to prevent and detect crime are well known. And the ability of CCTV to also undertake number plate recognition has assisted in the implementation of, for example, congestion schemes.
It seems very likely that CCTV will still be with us in principle in 2040. For example, many debates around the technology likely to enable ‘smart cities’ will mention CCTV as a possible tool, as well as the risks. The quality of the cameras themselves, as well as the software that processes the output, is likely to have improved markedly by 2040. Increases in image processing power and facial recognition seem likely (despite current criticism of its accuracy). Applications such as automated, AI-assisted traffic congestion monitoring would be one useful application.
However, it should not be assumed that the rise of CCTV is inexorable. CCTV networks are an infrastructure, and whole infrastructure networks can potentially be rendered redundant by technological advances – for example, the UK canal network. For uses such as congestion monitoring, it could be argued that the use of other technologies such as GPS within smart phones will render CCTV redundant, and unnecessarily intrusive. GPS also has the inestimable advantage of being able to see through walls.
So British cities might plausibly have reached a peak in the usage of visual surveillance. Quite apart from any data protection concerns, the best and longest-surviving uses of CCTV will be those where only a visual image will do. With the rise of alternative technologies, it is difficult to be sure what those uses might be by 2040. This does not mean that privacy campaigners should be celebrating the demise of CCTV – it’s merely likely to have been replaced by something else.