Eleven years ago, a giant mural appeared in Newman Street, central London, of a boy in a red jacket painting the slogan, “One Nation Under CCTV” in stark white capitals. His actions are filmed by a painted policeman next to a barking dog. Right above the mural was a real live CCTV security camera.
The mural was removed promptly by Westminster City Council, who ruled it was “an unlicensed commercial,” but its point resonated. Estimates vary, but when it was created by the elusive graffiti artist and social critic Banksy in 2008, there were something like four million surveillance cameras operating in the U.K. In a nation with a population of 66 million, the “One Nation Under CCTV” claim is no hyperbole.
In London alone, an estimated 500,000 CCTV cameras are believed to be in operation. Due to criminal activity, and CCTV Legal Requirements, many businesses invest in CCTV to improve safety on their premises, but the state also operates a vast network of cameras. The average Londoner going about her business is caught on camera 300 times per day. The highest density of cameras can be found in the train stations at King’s Cross and St. Pancras, where 408 devices monitor roughly 81 million people per year.
As surveillance technology has evolved — and arguably without adequate safeguards against over-intrusive surveillance of citizens — the U.K. has become one of the most monitored societies in the world. Citizens are monitored daily through local, all-seeing CCTV headquarters which aggregate footage from across the community, helping investigate crimes but also monitoring innocent people in public as they go about their daily life. It’s a state of affairs that even the U.K.’s independent CCTV commissioner admits the public are not fully aware of.
That view was reinforced by a 2018 report by Big Brother Watch that stated surveillance in Britain has “permeated almost every aspect of our lives. A future that, to many, may seem distant and unimaginably dystopian, is very much a reality, in 2018.” And yet, when it comes to the ubiquitousness of government surveillance, the compliance from the general public is glaring.
“If you look in countries which, in our living memory, have had communism and dictatorships, in those countries, they are much more suspicious of the right of the state to control people’s lives,” says William Webster, Professor of Public Policy and Management at the University of Stirling and Co-Director of the Centre for Research into Information, Surveillance and Privacy (CRISP). “We haven’t been invaded in the U.K. for 2000 years. We don’t necessarily see the state acting like that. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t act like that, but we don’t see or feel it.”
To get a sense of why this is, and whether there are any checks in place that other countries might look to, I visited some of the people operating this immense web of surveillance.