Every step you take: UK underground centre that is spy capital of the world

Visitors from around the world come to marvel at Westminster CCTV system

How the control centre of one of the country’s most extensive CCTV systems works

Millions of people walk beneath the unblinking gaze of central London’s surveillance cameras. Most are oblivious that deep under the pavements along which they are walking, beneath restaurant kitchens and sewage drains, their digital image is gliding across a wall of plasma screens.

Westminster council’s CCTV control room, where a click and swivel of a joystick delivers panoramic views of any central London street, is seen by civil liberty campaigners as a symbol of the UK’s surveillance society.

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Using the latest remote technology, the cameras rotate 360 degrees, 365 days a year, providing a hi-tech version of what the 18th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham conceived as the “Panopticon” – a space where people can be constantly monitored but never know when they are being watched.

The Home Office, which funded the creation of the £1.25m facility seven years ago, believes it to be a “best-practice example” on which the future of the UK’s public surveillance system should be modelled.

So famed has central London’s surveillance network become that figures released yesterday revealed that more than 6,000 officials from 30 countries have come to learn lessons from the centre.

They include police with the job of keeping order in the most dangerous cities on earth, from São Paulo in Brazil to Baltimore in the United States, as well as law enforcement officials from countries with a notorious disregard for the rights of citizens, such as China.

A delegation of foreign visitors turns up at Westminster’s subterranean CCTV control room on a monthly basis. The FBI has paid a visit, as have – more recently – police forces from South Africa, Japan and Mexico.

The UK, whose police forces pioneered experiments with the technology in the 1960s, leads the world in surveillance of its people.

Exactly how many CCTV cameras there are in the UK is not known, although one study four years ago estimated 4.8m cameras had been installed.

What is rarely disputed is that the UK has more cameras per citizen than anywhere else.

Visitors to Westminster’s control room from around the world have been arriving – as the Guardian did – through a maze of dank underground corridors beneath Piccadilly Circus.

The tunnels snake their way past empty boxes and used gas containers before arriving abruptly at two sets of locked doors. Behind the code-protected entrance, a wall of 48 CCTV monitors appears, offering a portal to a thousand snippets of London life.

On separate screens a mother walked a pushchair in Belgravia, a chef emerged from a Chinatown basement clutching bin liners and a cyclist tapped the window of a Burger King restaurant.

All were being watched by one of the 160 fixed cameras connected to the control centre, or any of the dozens more “mobile” cameras with Wi-Fi connections attached to walls across the city. At the controls was Dan Brown, who supervises operators whose job it is to zoom into anything suspicious. “We’ve got cameras everywhere,” he said. “We can pretty much see everything.”

What they cannot see may be sent via instant radio message, from an army of police, shop workers and “red cap” street guides who alert the operators to any abnormal behaviour they encounter.

Brown’s computer screen showed a map of London peppered with red dots – the cameras. With a click, he had control of a camera overlooking Trafalgar Square, then another near Soho.

“The majority of our cameras can zoom in to ID someone from a range of 75 metres,” he said.

The camera zoomed in to a man in a suit until his face sharpened into focus. The man kept glancing at his watch, as though he was waiting for someone.

“To be honest with you, the novelty wears off pretty quickly,” Brown said. “It’s just a job really, at the end of the day – you tend not to watch too much TV when you go home.”

As well as attempting to capture evidence of criminal activity, the operators are given galleries of faces – suspected bank robbers or missing teenagers – whom they look out for.

But for the most part, the job is to watch out for “suspicious” behaviour.

“You very quickly build up a pattern of what a drug deal looks like,” said Brown. “You’ll look for abnormal behaviour, body language, that sort of thing.”

A priority is to seek out potential terrorists on reconnaissance missions, and the operators repeatedly zoomed in to unsuspecting tourists snapping London sights.

Dean Ingledew, the council’s director of community protection, said that to safeguard privacy a team of amateur auditors regularly comes to the control room, unannounced, to inspect the tapes. Most images are stored for 31 days although, he said, police ask for some to be stored for “a long time”. He declined to say which images, why or for how long.

Ingledew is a former senior police officer, and is attuned to the benefits of the system for fighting crime and terrorism. Westminster cameras record 600 “incidents” a month, from littering to serious assaults.

Footage beamed into the control room has proved crucial to police investigations, he said, from a smash and grab robbery in Kensington two weeks ago to the lethal poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.

The truth is, the benefits of CCTV are still being debated.

A joint Home Office and police report recently found 80% of CCTV pictures are of such poor quality they cannot be used for detecting crime, and a police surveillance expert estimated last year that just 3% of crimes were solved by CCTV.

Defending the searching gaze of London’s cameras, Ingledew said that people who do not look as though they are doing anything wrong will be left alone.

“If you come up to the West End and you go into a restaurant and a theatre, even if you trip out of All Bar One after one too many, we’re not going to follow you down the street.”

Behind his back, an operator watched two men in bomber jackets talking animatedly inside a telephone box. Another operator watched a young couple gazing up at Nelson’s column.

Ingledew turned around. “If you monitor this camera system,” he said, “you very quickly learn to pick out the sharks amongst the shoals of fish.”

Paul Lewis
Monday 2 March 2009

Source: The Guardian

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