Are 4m CCTV cameras Orwell's vision realised?

WITH stunning views, a low crime rate and dramatic beaches, the Highland town of Tain - Scotland's oldest royal burgh - is starting to be recognised as a perfect holiday destination.

So it might surprise visitors to learn that Highland Council has spent 200,000 to keep them and the town's 3,500-strong population under close surveillance.

The money was invested in nearly 50 cameras linking Tain to nearby towns including Nairn, Dingwall and Thurso using digital recording systems.

But while police and councillors say the move keeps people safe, it is part of a growing trend which has led to the UK's information commissioner, Richard Thomas, warning that the country has become a "surveillance society".

Yesterday a leading policeman joined civil rights campaigners in branding the spread of CCTV cameras an "Orwellian situation".

Ian Readhead, deputy chief constable of Hampshire, voiced his concerns that sleepy towns and villages were wasting valuable resources on spy cameras.

Singling out the town of Stockbridge in his area, where parish councillors have paid 10,000 to install CCTV, he said: "I'm really concerned about what happens to the product of these cameras, and what comes next.

"If it's in our villages, are we really moving towards an Orwellian situation where cameras are at every street corner? I really don't think that's the kind of country that I want to live in."

There are now about four million CCTV cameras in Britain, giving people a chance of being caught on film a staggering 300 times a day.

If the police themselves fear that Big Brother is taking over, is it time to take a serious look at how such surveillance measures are used, and whether they work?

The civil rights campaign group Liberty definitely thinks so.

Shami Chakrabarti, its director, said: "Politicians like to present the police as ever hungry for more powers. Yet even the police are concerned that we are losing the value of privacy.

"We are not calling for a blanket ban on CCTV, which we agree can be useful in providing evidence, but we are worried that it is being used as an alternative to putting more police on the streets and that so much of the [police] budget is being put into CCTV when it has not been conclusively proven to be a deterrent."

The Scottish Executive says it is "in the process of" researching whether CCTV is value for money, with results to be published "in due course".

However, police in Scotland maintain that whatever the situation might be in England, the balance between protecting people and invading their privacy is being maintained north of the Border.

John Neilson is spokesman on CCTV for the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland and Assistant Chief Constable for Community Safety with Strathclyde Police, which recorded a 75 per cent drop in crime in Airdrie after a 130,000 CCTV system was installed.

He said: "I believe that CCTV in Scotland is proportionate to need, identified through criminal activity [detected by police] or community [-identified] need.

"In terms of reducing fear of crime, it has a big beneficial effect, and in terms of gaining evidence for things that have happened, like murders or antisocial behaviour, it has helped a great deal."

Surveillance has also helped people wrongly accused of crimes, who have used CCTV footage to show they were miles from the crime scene.

But questions remain about the benefits of CCTV in towns like Tain, which seems an unlikely crime hotspot. Mr Neilson added: "It is a small place but demand [for spy cameras] might be there in terms of what the public think."

With ever advancing technology, there are now far more sophisticated ways of detecting criminal behaviour.

Richard Thomas, the UK Information Commissioner, who is in charge of protecting individual's rights to privacy, has pointed out there are a host of new technologies to monitor people including micro-CCTV cameras and microphones hidden in lampposts, overhead drones that can track a person and micro-chips in clothing that can register when a person goes into a certain area.

He said many of the technologies are being used to monitor people for the purposes of boosting sales, for example triggering an advert in a shop customised to a consumer's profile. However, the technologies could also be put to use by the state.

"Do we want the same approach taken by social services, education and police?" he asked. "There are some really important questions to be asked about that."

A spokeswoman said the Scottish Executive was looking at a range of options to make the country's streets safer, and stressed that it believed the main way to achieve its aim was by employing more polices.

But the SNP signalled that it was more than happy with the current surveillance operation in Scotland - and would consider increasing measures in future.

Four million snoops across the UK track our moves

FROM Stirling to the Shetlands, it seems that almost nowhere is hidden from the intrusive gaze of the spy camera in Scotland today.

Since 1996, the Scottish Executive has awarded 10.3 million to 161 new CCTV projects, paying for 2,102 cameras through its CCTV Challenge Competition and Make Our Communities Safer Challenge Competition.

And that is just part of the picture - a further 2.5 million was spent in 2002-3 alone to upgrade existing schemes.

Last November, CCTV reached Shetland, when councillors in Britain's most northerly outpost announced plans to spend 200,000 on installing up to 14 CCTV cameras around the islands' capital, Lerwick.

The move was aimed at tackling antisocial behaviour, although the area already has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.

Throughout Britain there are now around four million cameras - one for every 14 people - which record the public 24 hours a day.

The spread of the spy cameras has led to growing fears that the nation is turning into a "Big Brother society" like the one envisioned by George Orwell in his novel 1984.

The rise of the CCTV camera also inspired the creators of the award-winning film Red Road, in which a Glasgow CCTV operator takes revenge on a man from her past after spotting him by chance on one of her screens.

CCTV - closed circuit television - systems link cameras to a control room where they can be operated remotely.

As well as basic pan, tilt and zoom modes, features on the cameras can also include night vision and computer-assisted operation and they are becoming increasingly sophisticated as technology advances.

The cost of individual cameras varies. Police currently favour mobile versions which can be moved between different locations according to need. These cost about 15,000 each.

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