Last year, council unanimously voted to install closed-circuit television cameras at the underpass at Rideau and Sussex, a pilot project which could lead to more city streets under 24/7 electronic watch.
Ottawa residents hardly noticed the additional surveillance. The city already had 500 cameras monitoring municipal buildings and facilities, and privately-owned cameras are everywhere. Across from the underpass at the Rideau Centre, for example, a sign warns everyone entering the washrooms they’re being filmed.
Still, as our crime rates continue to drop, one might wonder why we’d step up the random recording of citizens who just happen to be passing by.
Where would more routine surveillance of our city streets lead us? Well, I’ve just spent a few days in the U.K., a country that CCTV is transforming into the world’s largest reality show. The average Brit is captured on camera an estimated 300 times a day.
The clothing-penetrating nudie scanners we installed this year at the Ottawa airport, on the heels of the underwear bomber’s arrest, had already debuted at Heathrow a few years ago.
In the past 10 years, British municipal councils have become the most avid spies in the country, tripling the number of cameras they control from 21,000 to 60,000.
Some cameras are equipped with microphones, and many are concealed, but it’s hard to miss the ubiquitous signs informing you that you’re on less-than-candid camera, “for your safety and security.”
I should point out that the atmosphere here is hardly that of an Orwellian police state. People come and go as they please, and seem entirely unperturbed by the routine invasion of privacy.
But even as the recession-battered country’s government looks for spending to cut, the massive expense of expanding and maintaining this system goes unchallenged, even as a growing number of studies expose it as almost entirely ineffective in fighting crime.
Data released by the European Commission and the United Nations last year showed the U.K.’s rates of reported violent crime led all of Europe, despite a clear lead in the number of lenses trained on its citizenry.
It’s possible that too much data is being collected, that there are just too many cameras and not enough humans on the other end making sense of the images. But it seems increasingly more likely that this program of mass surveillance has been a pointless, invasive boondoggle that governments here, including Ottawa’s, seem nonetheless interested in replicating.