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Graeme Gerrard is Deputy Chief Constable of Cheshire Constabulary and ACPO lead on CCTV. Following work carried out by Cheshire Constabulary, here Graeme challenges some common misconceptions about the extent of CCTV usage in the UK.

4.2 million cameras? That’s what we’ve been told, but new research paints a different picture

There is no doubt that we have a lot of CCTV cameras in the UK. Indeed, if you pay much notice of the media, we have more cameras per head of population than any other country! This number is a matter of both interest and concern to the public - if we have more cameras, then it follows that we are being ‘watched’ more frequently - and if we are being watched more frequently, then we have the basis for describing the UK as a ‘Surveillance Society’.

Of course, the components of a ‘surveillance society’ include far more than just CCTV cameras: loyalty cards, communication records, automatic number plate recognition systems (ANPR), coded entry systems, keystroke monitoring of work stations and GPS monitoring of vehicle movements to name but a few. However, it is the image of a CCTV camera that is frequently used by the media to illustrate ‘surveillance society’ related stories – even if the surveillance is not image based.

To claim that we have more CCTV cameras than any other country assumes that we not only know how many cameras there are in the UK but also how many there are in every other country – a questionable assertion because, as I will explain, until now we didn’t even have a reliable estimate of camera numbers in this country.

The supposed Orwellian society that we live in makes an interesting story, so it’s unsurprising then that media continue to use what has actually been shown to be an outdated and discredited figure of 4.2 million without question.

Now, in an attempt to inject more rigorous figures into the debate, we introduce a more reliable number.

4.2 million...or less!

The most quoted figure for the number of cameras in the UK is that produced by Michael McCahill and Clive Norris in 2003. Their estimate of 4.2 million cameras is widely reported both in the UK and abroad. Indeed, so pervasive has the McCahill and Norris figure become that a search of Google identifies over 2400 references and many journalists, some leading academics and until recently, even senior politicians have used the 4.2 million estimate as if it were incontrovertible fact.

But what does the McCahill and Norris figure relate to? Many of those that use the figure have no idea how it was calculated or what type of cameras were counted. Does the figure include all cameras or just those that cover public space? Does it include cameras on private property that you have no access to? Does it include private domestic cameras? What about speed cameras?

Since the UK was one of the first countries to deploy cameras on the street, some commentators have assumed that the 4.2 million figure relates to public space cameras. It doesn’t, but little wonder then that we get headlines such as, “We are the most are spied upon nation in the world.’’

The reality is that the McCahill and Norris figure (4,285,000 to be precise) as based on counting the number of cameras along a road in a busy shopping district. They started by counted the number of publicly accessible premises and established the average number of cameras per location, then added the number of open-street CCTV cameras operated by the Borough Council together with an estimate of those operating in public institutions such as transport, hospitals and schools. This figure was then extrapolated across the whole of London (population 7.2 million residents). They estimated that there were at least 500,000 CCTV cameras in London, or one camera for every 14 residents. Extrapolating this figure across the UK (population of 60 million) gave them the 4.285 million – the number that is quoted by so many to this day.

Those of us who do not live in a highly urbanised area may question the accuracy of extrapolating the number of cameras found in a busy London street across the whole of the UK.

Constant contact

Another statement frequently quoted in conjunction with the 4.28 million figure is that ‘the average Briton is caught on security cameras some 300 times a day’. This figure was produced by Garry Armstrong and Clive Norris in 1999 and is based on the fictional journey of a fictional character as he travels around London on one day.

The character, Thomas Reams, had a busy day indeed. He travelled through his housing estate (which had a drugs problem), visited two schools, a hospital maternity wing, his workplace, a number of shops, several car parks, a railway crossing, Heathrow Airport, a football stadium and a red-light district. As well as using his car (during which his speed was monitored by speed cameras), he also used public transport.

While fictional journeys can be used to illustrate a point, I think it’s questionable whether this particular day is typical of those undertaken by the majority of the UK population! In fact, short of being a cab driver who moonlights as a hospital porter and a train driver, it’s difficult to see how anyone could clock up this many cameras in a day.

In fairness to Armstrong and Norris, they clearly made the point that this was a fictional construction. Indeed, Norris in his evidence before the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution Surveillance and Data Collection Inquiry accepted that the journey had been constructed so that it ‘intersected with known CCTV systems’ and that the overall figure was a ‘guestimate’.

Nonetheless, it is another statistic that has entered public consciousness and is regularly quoted – as if it were fact – by newspapers, the BBC and even the Surveillance Studies Network Report for the Information Commissioner on the Surveillance Society. If you check the 300 a day figure on Google, you get nearly 1300 references.

CCTV camera challenge

In the absence of an alternative estimate of the number of cameras in the UK, it is not surprising that the 4.2 million and 300-a-day figures are still being quoted. Developing a more accurate estimate is not easy, particularly as there is no requirement for the owner of a camera to give notification that they have installed one. The only way of establishing the number of cameras in any given area is to visit all the premises and ask the owners how many cameras they have. This is exactly what has happened in Cheshire, not because we wanted to know how many cameras there are but to map their location for policing purposes.

The mapping project involves visiting premises and recording details of the location of each camera, image quality, recording format, retention period and field of view. This information is then mapped onto a computer-based mapping system that is accessible by officers investigating crimes and incidents.

For example, in the case of a shop, are the cameras covering areas that the public can access or are they covering areas such as the storeroom or warehouse? Likewise, if a camera is externally located, is it watching over private space such as an enclosed yard or does it have a view of the street or space where you will find members of the public? A total of 9,766 cameras provided images, either extensively or fleetingly, of space to which the public (in most cases customers) have access.

These figures do not include those cameras operated by our Unitary Authorities that are located on the streets of our communities and monitor our town centres and other public areas. It is these cameras that generate significant debate and interest both here and abroad.

The Cheshire mapping project is ongoing and in reality is likely to be a never-ending task unless, of course, Parliament were to introduce a requirement for all users of CCTV cameras to give notification as to the number and location of their cameras.

Extrapolating from the data

To establish a total for the UK, we could adopt the methodology used by McCahill and Norris and extrapolate the Cheshire figure across the whole of the UK. However, we want to ensure that we reflect the differences in camera concentrations that occur between urban and rural areas, something that they failed to do.

National Statistics data indicates that 64 per cent of the UK population resides in urban areas with the rest living in rural areas. We identified which of our local authority wards were urban and rural and then selected the most extensively mapped wards at a ratio that reflects the urban/rural split in the UK population.

Camera concentrations in the urban areas of Cheshire range from 0.6 to 25.4 cameras per 100 population with a mean average of 3.6. Concentrations in rural areas range from 0.3 to 7.7 cameras per 100 population with a mean average of 0.9. An overall average, using a ratio of urban and rural areas that matches the national position, gives us 2.805 cameras per 100 population. On this basis, extrapolating the Cheshire findings across the UK population (60,776,238) gives us a figure of 1,704,238 cameras.

To this figure we need to add the public space CCTV cameras operated by local authorities. The CCTV User Group published figures in January 2009 following a survey of Local Authorities. They identified 29,703 public space cameras in England and Wales. If we extrapolate this figure to give us a UK-wide figure then we end up with 33,443 cameras. Interestingly, extrapolating Cheshire’s 504 public space cameras to give a UK figure gives us a figure of 30,631 cameras which is within 10 per cent of the CCTV User Group’s estimate.

Combining the premises CCTV with the public space CCTV gives us a figure of 1,737,681 cameras. In the original McCahill and Norris estimate, they added a sum of cameras to account for street CCTV cameras operated by the Borough Council together with an estimate of those operating in public institutions such as transport, hospitals and schools. Cheshire’s mapping project captured the public institutions, while the open street cameras were counted by the CCTV User Group. That leaves us with ‘transport’. Assessing these numbers is difficult as there are cameras on trains, railway stations and the London Underground, not to mention some in buses.

Here our figures become less precise and we have to rely on the estimates of others. Estimates in London indicate that 2000 cameras watch over London’s over-ground railway stations and a further 11,000 operate on the London Underground system. We know that London has a particularly high concentration of cameras covering its transport infrastructure and so extrapolating the London numbers across the UK would give an unrealistically high figure.

Myth buster

What of the 300-a-day figure? Well, we tested that as well. Instead of using a mythical character who undertook a journey to all the local CCTV hotspots, we used real people undertaking real journeys. Using the mapping information and their own observations, we listed all the ANPR, traffic light, and speed cameras that they passed, together with those business premises cameras that may have captured a fleeting glance of their vehicle as it passed by. We added the local authority cameras plus those in the various shops and leisure centres that they visited as they went about their normal activities. Finally, we added those cameras at their workplace. The figures ranged from 42 cameras to 101 with the mean average of 68. This is a far cry from the 300 a day that the media regularly use.

The mapping project in Cheshire has provided us with an opportunity to re-assess the number of cameras within the UK. What we have attempted to do is count the same type of surveillance cameras that McCahill and Norris counted but with a methodology that we felt would provide a more accurate estimate.

Only half the cameras

Eight years after the 4.2 million figure was first published, we now have research that indicates that the figure is less than half this.

If anyone asks us for a figure for the number of CCTV cameras in the UK, we will tell them that the best research we have to date says it is approximately 1.85 million. And the real figure for the number of times the average person is likely to be ‘caught’ on CCTV in a day is less than 70 – and most of these will be at your workplace or fleeting glimpses by cameras located in shops.

Are we still the most watched nation of earth? Since we have yet to see estimates from other countries it is impossible to say, but hopefully those that claim that we are will now have the opportunity to revise their figures.