"Closed circuit television (CCTV) is a threat to our freedom"

PUBLISHED: 01 Sep 2009

AUTHOR: Helen Birtwistle

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Walk around any city in Britain and the chances are your movements will be captured by closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras [Ref: Wikipedia]. Surveillance has become a fact of life in modern societies, but in Britain, which has 20 per cent of the world’s CCTV cameras, it is particularly prevalent. The government and police see CCTV as playing a role in freeing people from the fear of antisocial behaviour and terrorist attacks, a vision apparently borne out by various crime surveys taken over recent years. But more recently a number of high profile reports, including “Surveillance: Citizens and the State” from the House of Lords [Ref: Parliament], have supported assertions that we have now ‘woken up’ to a surveillance society and that the growth of CCTV is a worrying development [Ref:]. Throughout the twentieth century philosophers and novelists have taken the rise of surveillance very seriously. French philosopher Michel Foucault presented Jeremy Bentham’s eighteenth century design for a Panopticon prison [Ref: Cartome] – enabling prisoners to be constantly observed – as a metaphor for the increasing power of institutions to control our lives in today’s society. Most famously, George Orwell depicted a world without privacy where life was lived under the intrusive gaze of the telescreen and the constant awareness that ‘Big Brother is watching you’ [Ref: Wikipedia]. But against this wave of concern some say that talk of a surveillance society has more to do with conspiracy theories than fact. Journalist David Aaronovitch even goes so far as to suggest that depictions of ‘creeping totalitarianism’ are the work of ’paranoid fantasists’, distracting us from the real problems of democracy in the here and now.

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Is CCTV effective in fighting crime?
One new aspect of the debate relates to public safety. Following the release of an internal report for the Metropolitan Police in August 2009 revealing that just one in 1,000 crimes are solved using CCTV evidence, few would suggest that the technology is a panacea. The question is how to proceed [Ref: London Paper]. Whilst some argue that the time has come for CCTV to be scrapped, senior police officers suggest that the problem lies with how CCTV is used, rather than the technology itself, and remain convinced of its potential in helping to tackle crime. Launching a scheme to improve the use of images from cameras, they say that there is no reason why the investigation of CCTV evidence can’t become as effective as fingerprinting and DNA. Beyond detection and deterrence, they also argue that CCTV plays an important role in reassuring communities vulnerable to crime. But others remain unconvinced, and suggest that CCTV might even increase crime. Quoting a number of recent studies on attitudes to crime, they underline the fact that whilst crime figures have fallen in recent years, fear of crime has been mounting. [Ref: Joseph Rowntree Foundation]. Rather than alleviate concern, they argue that the proliferation of CCTV has exacerbated fears and undermines ‘natural surveillance’ and our sense of collective responsibility.

Surely if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear?
Over the last year a number of high profile commentators have hit back at claims that our freedoms are under threat, both from an over powerful state and technologies such as CCTV. Worrying about CCTV, they suggest, is the preserve of the conspiracy-minded, anti-state middle class who ‘fetishise’ individual freedom above all else. In doing so, they forget how CCTV can enhance human liberty, by protecting communities from those who would harm them – be they the Ipswich rapist [Ref: The Times] or the local teenage tearaway. But critics of CCTV and the ‘surveillance society’ remain sceptical, and suggest that the problems of CCTV are more profound and deep rooted than this ‘conspiracy’ caricature suggests.

So is CCTV less like Big Brother and more like a benevolent father?
‘Since Jamie Bulger’s case the public see CCTV not as Big Brother but as a benevolent father’, argues Peter Fry, director of the CCTV User Group [Ref: Christian Science Monitor]. In 1993, haunting CCTV images showed the two-year-old toddler being led away by two young boys who later beat him to death [Ref: BBC News]. Critics of CCTV say we shouldn’t make policy on the basis of horrific but isolated incidents. However, there are differences in emphasis. For some, the threat of a Big Brother state is a very real one. Others agree the ‘benevolent father’ analogy is more accurate, but say it’s just as worrying. CCTV promotes exaggerated fear and mistrust, they believe. It’s the awareness of being watched and the feeling of being reliant on CCTV to make us feel safe, not the danger of actual interference in our lives that is the major threat to freedom. These trends, they suggest, infantilise us all and transform how we relate to ourselves and one another. But given the seriousness of crimes like child abduction that are potentially preventable by CCTV, shouldn’t we do what we can to fight the risks?

Have we sleep-walked our way into a surveillance society?
One of the most worrying aspects of CCTV, critics argue, is the threat it poses to private life. Described by philosopher A C Grayling as a ‘margin of inviobility for our thoughts, feelings and intimacies’ and the place where we might recover from ‘the abrasions of life’, privacy is regarded by many to be a prerequisite of both a free life and a democratic society. Citing the proliferation of CCTV in pubs, classrooms and increasingly workplaces, some, including Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, contend that we are ‘waking up to a surveillance society’ in which privacy is being compromised and citizens are constantly monitored. [Ref:]. But others argue that concerns surrounding privacy are being overplayed. CCTV is not being erected in private homes, but in public spaces. Privacy, by this reading,  is important ‘ in our homes and in our heads’, not in the middle of Piccadilly Circus.


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Studying the ‘surveillance society’

Gavin John Douglas Smith Guardian 14 April 2009


As seen on CCTV

Jeremy Watson Scotland on Sunday 5 August 2009

We don’t need no CCTV in our classrooms

Leia Clancy and Sam Goodman Guardian 3 June 2009

Big Brother is not earning his keep

Gillian Bowditch The Times 15 February 2009


Next time you tread in dog mess, you’ll wish I’d been there

Cosmo Landesman The Times 16 August 2009

Not my kind of freedom

Conor Gearty Guardian 2 February 2009

This strange backlash against CCTV

Johann Hari Independent 17 March 2008


We know where you live

AC Grayling Guardian 5 December 2009

Surveillance: Citizens and the State

House of Lords Constitution Committee Second Report 21 January 2009

‘Politicians mess everything up’ – wrong

David Aaronovitch The Times 26 February 2008

Why we must stop deferring to authority

Dolan Cummings spiked 15 June 2007


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Someone to watch over you

Jessica Shepherd Guardian 4 August 2009

Pubs and Police fall out over CCTV in bars

Matthew Taylor Guardian 16 May 2009

Give us back our private lives

Alasdair Palmer and David Barrett Telegraph 25 April 2009

The need for a ‘snooper’s charter’

Carole Cadwalladr Guardian 20 April 2009

Police v citizen: the Orwellian struggle

Robert Reiner Guardian 8 April 2009

A convention of can’t

Conor Gearty New Statesman 19 March 2009

Counting the CCTV cameras

David Aaronovitch and Paul Lewis Guardian 13 March 2009

House of Lords: rise of CCTV is threat to freedom

Alan Travis Guardian 6 February 2009

Anthony and Tracy White

Guardian 4 February 2009

Ignore the paranoid fantasists

David Aaronovitch The Times 26 February 2008

Watch yourself

Judith Kneen Guardian 17 April 2007

Dilemmas of privacy and surveillance

Royal Academy of Engineering March 2007

Does CCTV help prevent crime?

Ben Wallace and Shami Chakrabati Sky News November 2006

Debate brews over London surveillance cameras

Jim Zarroli National Public Radio (NPR) 11 July 2005

CCTV and children

BBC Radio 4 'Woman’s Hour' 19 March 2003


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


Counting the CCTV cameras

David Aaronovitch and Paul Lewis Guardian 13 March 2009

Does CCTV help prevent crime?

Ben Wallace and Shami Chakrabati Sky News November 2006

Debate brews over London surveillance cameras

Jim Zarroli National Public Radio (NPR) 11 July 2005

CCTV and children

BBC Radio 4 'Woman’s Hour' 19 March 2003

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