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By Jane Black On Oct. 9, a pipe bomb exploded under a traffic-monitoring camera in North Belfast. An act of terrorism? More than likely, it was just another average British citizen furious about the ubiquitous surveillance that has sprung up in Britain over the last decade.
It wasn't the first time a "speed cam" has come under attack. The destruction of these surveillance cameras -- which cost between 30,000 to 50,000 British pounds each (between $50,000 and $80,000) -- has become a near-weekly occurrence in the British Isles. Farmers in Somerset have been charged with using speed cams and closed-circuit TV cameras (CCTV) for target practice. In Cambridgeshire, vandals set one afire. Earlier this month, one creative hooligan knocked down a speed cam by attaching a rope from the back of his car to the camera's pole and driving away -- a mini reenactment of the toppling of Saddam's statue in Baghdad last spring.
A cynic might argue the vandals are motivated more by anger over receiving speeding tickets than by any invasion of privacy. But when the characteristically reserved Brits start acting like rowdy Texans, you know a backlash is building. Britain has 4,500 speed cams. The country's more than 2.5 million CCTV cameras catch each British resident as many as 300 times each day.
"SMOKE AND MIRRORS." And yet, very little evidence shows that speed cams reduce road deaths or that CCTV deters crime. It's only on the rare occasion that CCTV helps police catch criminals: The arrest of the two 10-year-old boys who abducted and murdered 3-year-old Jamie Bulger from a shopping mall in 1993 was one highly publicized exception. But these were naive criminals, not savvy enough to steer clear of CCTV cameras.
Instead, there's an overwhelming feeling that too often surveillance is used not to make the country safer but to monitor innocent people and, in the case of speed cams, raise much-needed tax revenues. "There's this notion starting to build in countries around the world that maybe we've been conned -- that these 'security measures' are smoke and mirrors," says Simon Davies, director of London-based advocacy group Privacy International. "People here are demanding a proper threat assessment. It's one area where Europe leads the trend."
U.S. officials might want to take note of that. Two years after September 11, the Bush Administration, led by Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, are fast creating one of the most comprehensive, high-tech surveillance societies in the world.
NO SAFER. The violence in Britain stems from widespread outrage that surveillance cameras don't do the job they purport to. Drivers complain that speed cameras are never placed where they should be -- outside schools, near athletic stadiums, in city centers -- but on straight stretches of road where the cops are most likely to catch someone for speeding. "Speed cameras are just another way of demonizing car drivers," British driver Chris Davies told the BBC. "We need less of them, [and they should be] in the right areas, based on facts."
Indeed, according to the nonprofit Association of British Drivers (ABD), penalties and prosecutions from speed cams raise 66 million pounds ($110 million) annually. Meanwhile, road deaths continue to climb: From 1995 to 2001 (the latest figure available), the number of speed-cam tickets and prosecutions in Britain soared from around 207,000 to more than 1 million, while road deaths increased 4.5%, from 2,995 to 3,127.
It's clear proof, says ABD Chairman Brian Gregory, that the switch from human traffic patrols, which can spot drunk or reckless drivers, to video surveillance has failed to make roads safer. This year, the ABD launched a campaign against speed cams, calling them "Weapons of Mass Persecution."
SHINE A LIGHT. The technology came into vogue after two bombs, planted by the Irish Republican Army, exploded in London's financial district in the early '90s. The response: To create a "ring of steel" -- a network of CCTV cameras on the eight official entry gates to the City of London. The idea caught on. In 1994, 79 British cities were monitoring their central districts with a network of surveillance cameras. By 1998, 440 cities were wired. From 1996 to 1998, three-quarters of the Home Office's Crime Prevention budget was spent on CCTV cameras. Originally, citizens embraced the technology. Being watched at all times made them feel safe.
Ten years later, it's clear CCTV has done little to clean up the streets. Study after study shows that CCTV simply displaces crime to areas where no cameras are present rather than preventing it. According to a June, 2002, report from crime-fighting nonprofit NACRO, CCTV cuts crime only by 5%, vs. 20% reduction achieved by brighter street lighting.
Meanwhile, the authorities are getting creative with fines. Take the institution of a "congestion charge" in London. The idea: Charge drivers who enter the center of London during business hours 5 pounds, thereby encouraging residents to use public transportation. To enforce the fee, London authorities use a sophisticated license-plate-recognition system that tracks every car that enters the restricted area. If drivers don't alert officials they've entered, they're fined 50 pounds.
AMERICAN EYE. Then, on Feb. 8 -- just a month after its introduction -- London newspaper The Observer revealed that the system was organized in cooperation with the intelligence services, which were using facial-recognition technology to monitor individual drivers. Suspicious motorists would be monitored not just at the point of entry but around the city.
New public-transport cards also have raised alarm. The so-called Oyster cards each have a unique I.D. number linked to the owner's name. Every time the card is used, the location, time, and passenger name are recorded on the card's microchip. The London Transport Authority plans to retain information on journeys for "a number of years," it says. Under certain circumstances, such as a criminal investigation, the information will be released to law-enforcement agencies.
Similar surveillance plans have been proposed or implemented in the U.S. In the wake of September 11, Washington (D.C.) police set up a centralized video-surveillance network that can zoom in on people from as far as a half-mile away. The network was installed without any notice to Congress or the local city council. And despite complaints from privacy groups, the system remains in place. The popular EZ Pass system, which allows commuters to speed quickly through toll booths, also permits extensive tracking without adequate promise of data protection, privacy advocates fear.
Beyond outraged critics, however, such actions remain obscure. Americans who are being asked to exchange privacy for the promise of security might want to look at Britain. In democratic nations, the balance between liberty and security is a delicate one. American officials would be wise to take note of the wave of indignation sweeping across Britain -- or they could soon face a backlash of their own. Black covers privacy issues for BusinessWeek Online in her twice-monthly Privacy Matters column