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decorGreat Britain: Excessive video surveillance

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: « L’efficacité des caméras est exagérée »

by C. P.

CCTV Cameras’ Efficiency Exaggerated

Translated Saturday 14 July 2007, by Jonathan Pierrel

According to sociologist Éric Charmes (1), the real issue about CCTV cameras lies in supervising those who are "supervising" us.

HUMA: Are CCTV cameras a threat to our freedom?

ERIC CHARMES: Yes, there are people who consider CCTV cameras as a threat to our freedom and say that we have entered an Orwellian world in which every single movement is observed. This threat must not be overlooked. But it must not be dramatised either. Quite often, there is no one behind the camera watching what is happening. Furthermore, there are authorities in our societies which protect us from Big Brother. And that is when such an authority as the CNIL (Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés – French data protection authority) is essential, provided the State allows it to exercise its supervision.

HUMA: The government plans to install CCTV cameras to fight against terrorism, pointing at Great-Britain as an example. Is this system as efficient as it is thought to be?

ERIC CHARMES: Great Britain is the country in Europe where there are the most CCTV cameras. The British are not fundamentally opposed to the system as there are less than 20% of surveyed people only who are hostile to them. However, endless media talk has exaggerated the efficiency of cameras to track and arrest offenders. Most serious studies show that for everyday-life disturbances, the efficiency of cameras is very limited, especially if we consider the cost to set up and run these networks.

HUMA: Would there not be more appropriate supervising methods?

ERIC CHARMES: It would be better if other means were favoured. In the past, only two or three generations ago, pedestrians, neighbours, shopkeepers did not hesitate to intervene when incidents occurred on the street. Today, people are less and less likely to intervene and prefer to delegate this duty to professionals in charge of security to handle the situation, especially the police. But it does not prevent them from demanding fast interventions. As a result, it is difficult to consider using another solution than CCTV cameras. Activists against CCTV cameras have a slogan which sums up quite well this difficult issue: Supervise the supervisors. In the end, the problem is not really about setting up CCTV cameras but controlling how they are used. Who watches the cameras, what becomes of the recordings, to what extend they can be used and who can use them? These are the questions to ask.


(1) Éric Charmes is a lecturer in urbanism at the French Institute of Urbanism (Paris-VIII University) and a member of CNRS department on theories of urban transformation.

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