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Britain’s long lens of the law

Times Staff Writer

It used to be that troublemakers could lounge on the planters outside the McDonald’s here and pick apart the geraniums to their hearts’ content.

A Polish immigrant hamburger salesman might complain -- as if! -- or someone’s grandma would tell the offending group of hoodlums to knock it off, if she dared. These days, Big Brother does the job.

The closed-circuit television camera lurking just down the street from the fast-food restaurant bellows menacingly at the first sign of danger to the flora, or a cast-off cigarette butt or fast-food wrapper, for that matter. “Pick it up,” commands a booming voice from . . . where, exactly?

The CCTV cameras in Gloucester and several other British towns now come equipped with speakers, meaning Big Brother is not only watching, he’s telling you what to do.

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“When people hear that, they tend to react. They pick up the litter and put it in the bin,” said Mick Matthews, assistant chief police constable in this old cathedral city of 110,000 in the rolling Cotswold hills.

For all the increased anti-terrorism security measures in the U.S., there is probably no society on Earth more watched than Britain.

By some estimates, 4.2 million CCTV cameras, or one for every 15 people, quietly, and sometimes not so quietly, monitor the comings and goings of almost everyone -- an average person is caught on camera up to 300 times a day.

Thanks in part to Britain’s long history of terrorist attacks by the Irish Republican Army, some early, high-profile law enforcement successes helped imprint the potential benefits of closed-circuit television on the popular imagination. With more than $200 million in funding since 1999, CCTV was a fixture in British cities long before attacks by Islamic militants began prompting governments around the world to step up surveillance of their populations.

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Cameras are fixed on lampposts and on street corners, above sidewalks, in subways, on buses, in taxis, in stores, over the parking lots, in mobile police vans, and in some cities, even perched in the hats of police officers walking their beats.

Surprisingly clear images of Britons engaged in apparently nefarious activities have become a staple on the evening news; few of the country’s many terrorism trials unfold without the jury being presented with multiple images of the defendants purportedly carrying backpack bombs or driving up to a storehouse of explosives.

Pub patrons in one town last year had their fingerprints scanned as they walked in (bringing up their criminal records on a computer screen); some cities are considering putting electronic chips in household trash cans to measure output; a toll-free “smoke-free compliance line” takes snitch reports on violators of the new national ban on smoking in public places.

The DNA profile of every person arrested -- even those briefly detained for, say, loitering, and released without charge -- is on file in what is believed to be, per capita, the largest such database in the world, with 3.9 million samples. It includes the genetic markings of an estimated 40% of Britain’s black male population.

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For the majority of Britons, polls show, there is nothing at all wrong with much of this monitoring.

“I didn’t know the camera was even up there until it started talking,” said Clive Anthony, who blinked and twirled for a moment one recent afternoon in downtown Gloucester when the CCTV camera started barking at something. “I haven’t got a problem with it, basically. To my mind, if you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing and going about your business, just because somebody’s watching that, it’s not taking anything away from me.”

Public acceptance of closed-circuit television skyrocketed after the murder of toddler James Bulger near Liverpool in 1993. In CCTV footage that shocked the country, the killers, a pair of 10-year-old boys, were shown leading the trusting 2-year-old away from a shopping center.

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“The last known sighting of this boy was on CCTV. And there was this kind of iconic image that was used to say, ‘If we had more CCTV, we would be more likely to spot horrible crimes like this,’ ” said Kirstie Ball, an expert on surveillance systems at Open University Business School in Milton Keynes. “It got to a point where if you were opposing CCTV, you were in favor of child murder.”

But a growing number of people, including some police officers and the country’s information commissioner, are beginning to wonder whether Britain isn’t watching itself too closely.

“Local communities are pushing very powerfully for closed-circuit television. What they say is, I may live in this little village that has no history of violent crime, but I’ll feel safer if I’ve got CCTV,” said Ian Readhead, deputy chief constable of the Hampshire police, who recently warned that Britain risks “an Orwellian situation with cameras on every street corner.”

“Suppose Mr. Brand is seen walking down the local street with Mrs. Wight. ‘What’s that about?’ someone will ask. And in a village environment, it begins to cause a rumor, it begins to cause intrigue,” he said in an interview. “You really only want to deploy this kind of equipment when you have clear knowledge of an identifiable situation, and when you’ve achieved your objectives, you want to take it down.”

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In a worldwide survey conducted by Privacy International, a London-based civil rights group that monitors government infringement on privacy, Britain was roughly keeping company with Russia and China near the bottom, colored in black on a world map, with the U.S. not far behind, in red.

Britain has no written constitution, no bill of rights, and no privacy act. Its privacy protections are enforced mainly through the European Convention on Human Rights and a limited data protection law passed in 1998.

“In the area of visual surveillance, we are so far ahead of the field that it’s beyond measurement,” said Simon Davies, the group’s director. “If we had a color that moved from ‘black’ to ‘black hole,’ we’d be talking about” Britain.

The national information commissioner, Richard Thomas, has warned that Britain is “waking up in a surveillance society,” and has called for greater public discussion of what it really means to make one’s life a virtual open book.

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“The U.K. has more CCTV cameras per head of population than any other country in the world, but it’s not only that,” Thomas said. “Every time we use mobile telephones, every time we use credit cards, every time we use the Internet for shopping or a search, every time we interact with the government for social security or taxes or passport checks, every time we go to our doctors or hospitals now, we are leaving an electronic footprint. And this of course is not just a U.K. issue, it is an international issue.”

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Britain’s move into the era of biometric passports, national ID cards and face-recognition software coincided in many ways with America’s, and the advent of the Patriot Act. Britain had its own 9/11 -- the simultaneous attacks on the London transport system in July 2005 that killed 52 people and wounded hundreds of others.

The use of warrantless wiretaps, a subject of court battles in the U.S., hardly produced a murmur here. Police in Britain almost never require a judge’s approval to listen in on people’s phones.

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And Britain, unlike the U.S., requires telephone companies to retain their customers’ landline and cellphone records for at least 12 months for possible use by the government. Under regulations that took effect Oct. 1, the data are now available to more than 650 agencies, from tax and welfare authorities to local councils, in addition to the police.

And unlike the United States, where citizens may have medical record files gathering dust in clinics across three states that never talk to one another, Britain is in the midst of building a centralized, $24-billion databank containing the health records of 50 million citizens, billed as the biggest civil information technology project in the world.

The system is designed to provide access to patients’ medical history no matter where they are receiving treatment. But some patients have challenged it, worrying that in a databank so vast and potentially leaky, their confidential information could end up in the wrong hands. Faced with this opposition, the government has decided patients will be allowed to veto their records being shared nationally.

The police DNA databank has faced critics too. A man in Somerset has spent much of the last year battling the local police department over a permanent DNA record that was established for his 13-year-old son, who was briefly suspected of writing graffiti in the town center.

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The man, who did not want to be identified in order to protect his son, said he brought the boy into the police station this year when he heard officers wanted to talk to him. “They realized that [he] didn’t have anything to do with it whatsoever, and the officer said, ‘You’re free to go.’

“Just before we left, he said, ‘Oh, by the way, by law we have to take your DNA.’ And I just couldn’t believe what was going on. It was like he was being treated like some kind of convict.”

Only recently, after the intervention of a civil rights organization, did the police department say the DNA file would be discarded. “We weren’t looking for any compensation,” the father said. “I’ve always had respect for the police. But I knew [my son] was innocent.”

In 2003, a 51-year-old Essex man won $39,600 in damages in a judgment from the European Court on Human Rights when CCTV footage of him attempting suicide on a public street was given to local newspapers and the BBC (which broadcast it to more than 9 million viewers on its “Crime Beat” program).

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“It’s really a matter of dignity, and what it means to be a human being,” said Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, the human rights organization that represented the Essex man in court.

“The problem we face is that we’re living in an age where we’re even having to make arguments about why torture is always wrong, about why people should be charged and tried before they’re imprisoned,” Chakrabarti said. “And whenever those values are being challenged, something like personal privacy becomes very difficult to defend.”

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Government authorities say their new surveillance tools not only guard against terrorists, but also against welfare cheating, illegal immigration and the juvenile delinquents who pose a problem in many of Britain’s cities.

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“The public don’t have a problem with being protected from thugs, or having CCTV cameras that catch murderers, or DNA that solves horrendous crimes that left victims and families without justice for 20 years,” former Prime Minister Tony Blair said, responding to growing concerns before leaving office. “But there must always be safeguards.”

Although studies have shown the CCTV cameras have had a negligible effect on crime in most areas where they’re placed -- other than parking lots, where they do help prevent thefts -- police say they are an invaluable tool in catching suspects after the fact, helping track missing children or the elderly and directing police to potential problem situations before they escalate.

Gloucester has been able to reduce the number of patrols because of the talking cameras, which are monitored at a center at police headquarters by an officer who speaks into the microphone from there.

The CCTV cameras not only talk, but they also can be linked to software that scans vehicle registration plates to track suspects through the city even before they have committed crimes.

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“If there’s a criminal we’re interested in, not necessarily in a position to arrest him, but if you’re trying to track this criminal, learn his lifestyle, his movements, his vehicle number will be put into the system, and any time he comes into the city, his movements will be tracked,” said Roger Clayton, chief inspector of police in Gloucester.

“Arguably, what Roger’s just described is the debate: Is this picking on an individual?” said Matthews, the assistant chief constable.

“But if we know an individual with a record for offending is making their way toward an area where they’ve offended previously, and we have every reason to believe they’ll offend again, we’ll track them, and if they re-offend, we’ll catch them.”

These days, the wrongdoer sometimes is merely someone who gets caught riding a bicycle in the downtown pedestrians-only zone.

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“Please dismount from the bicycle,” the offender is told, by someone, somewhere. They’re never sure who.

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kim.murphy@latimes.com


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