Mal Fletcher
Super Snoop Nation

Will the UK become a nation of super-snoopers? If the designers of a new internet enterprise have their way, Britain may become what some privacy advocates are calling a 'snooper's paradise'.

Under the Internet Eyes scheme, computer owners within Britain - and later, the designers hope, around the world - will be able to view life feeds from security cameras and report suspected criminal activity.

Marrying the security angle with the attractions of online gaming, the designers will allow watchers to compete for points and win cash prizes when they accrue a high enough score, based on successful crime identifications.

The scheme, which will roll out next month in Stratford-upon-Avon, will target shops and other businesses, but the designers hope to see it used more widely - with CCTV cameras owned by the police and local authorities.

On the face of it, such a scheme seems to offer a solution to what has become a real dilemma for the authorities.

Despite the fact that Britain is one of the most CCTV-laden countries in the world, with one camera for every 14 people, only three percent of UK crime is solved using this technology. An internal police report in August revealed that only one crime is solved for every thousand cameras across London.

Authorities are desperate to find a way of making better use of their in-street cameras - and justifying the expense and the intrusion of privacy they represent.

Yet turning crime detection into a game, for cash prizes, raises all kinds of ethical questions. And the notion of extending this to include public CCTV moves the idea beyond the merely distasteful to the potentially dangerous.

Once governments allowed private contractors to take on security work previously done by public servants - at airports and the like - it was inevitable that private enterprise would eventually tap into Britain's overreliance on CCTV cameras.

The designers of Internet Eyes claim that gamers will not know the location of the cameras they observe. Yet clever criminals always find their way around such safeguards - eventually they may use the system to scope likely crime targets.

The Internet Eyes website will feature a rogues gallery of criminals caught through the system, along with a list of the offences they committed. Isn't this a form of online vigilantism?

What's more, using a little bit of computer savvy, nosy neighbours may eventually be able to use the system to keep an eye on other people's business. And what is to stop racists from targeting people of certain ethnic origins in their snoop crime reports?

The question we should be asking is not how can we find enough eyeballs to keep up with the CCTV coverage; it is whether having this many cameras is an effective crime-prevention measure in the first place? And, perhaps more importantly, what does extreme CCTV coverage say about the relationship between local authorities and their citizenry?

Trust is at the very heart of democratic government. Government can operate only because its citizenry entrusts certain powers into its hands.

If government won't trust its people, one wonders how long it will be before people return the favour and stop trusting their public representatives and public servants. To a degree, this is probably already happening. In the end, a lack of trust breeds social insecurity and a desire to fight the system rather than co-operate with it.

In the mid 1990s, sociologists developed what they called the 'broken windows theory' which says that when public buildings are left rundown, with smashed windows and graffiti on the walls, their tenants or users are more prone to commit acts of vandalism.

Likewise, when public services constantly break down and there's no attempt to improve them, people feel that the system is letting them down. Petty crime rises as a result of this culture of mistrust and disappointment.

In a similar way, I think, the preponderance of security cameras in our streets leads people to ask, consciously or unconsciously, 'If the authorities don't trust us, why should we trust or engage with the authorities?'

Knowing that we are surrounded by instruments of intrusion breeds and perpetuates a culture of suspicion all round.

Most of us are willing to compromise some aspects of our privacy, knowing that we must if we're to live in a safe and lawful society. We're willing to pay a price to enjoy the benefits of a globalized, interconnected urban society.

While the technology behind Internet Eyes is amoral, the end user is always going to be a person, or group of persons, with all the frailties associated with being human. We need to take a step back at this point and ask whether or not we've already gone too far in promoting a surveillance society.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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