CCTV is an area which often receives bad press but on this occasion it’s key to the security of Olympics. The Westminster Control Centre is impressive and has a very good track record in assisting with the prevention and detection of crime in London. Read more about the Control Centre below:
When the Olympic bandwagon rolls into the UK, the eyes of the world will focus on the Olympic Park in east London. But as up to 4 billion people tune in to watch the world’s best athletes, Dan Brown’s team will have a very different focus.
Hidden away in a warren of underground passages below Piccadilly Circus, they will be monitoring 47 flickering and changing screens – 24 hours a day, seven days a week – in one of the most extensive CCTV operations the UK has seen.
“The Olympics is going to be a massive challenge for us,” says Brown, the manager of Westminster’s CCTV control centre. “We are expecting a million extra people a day to come into Westminster during the Olympics – more than double the usual number – and that means a lot more potential problems.”
The system, run by Westminster council, has just had a £500,000 “Olympic revamp” and can now survey large parts of central London in high definition.
For civil liberty campaigners, it is a symbol of the UK’s burgeoning surveillance society. But for Brown, the new system, with its wireless cameras and high-quality images, is a key part of an Olympic security operation that will see tens of thousands of troops and private security guards working alongside police officers and the security services.
“We are working very closely with the Met and all its different departments,” says Brown. “There are ongoing discussions about things like street crime, crowd management and of course CT (counter terrorism).”
Reached via an unmarked door next to a coffee shop in the Trocadero shopping centre, visitors have to negotiate dingy corridors and stairways, littered with bins and leaking pipes, before arriving at two sets of locked doors.
Inside, three monitors, employed by the private firm Serco, sit in 12-hour shifts in front of a bank of 47 screens that carry high-resolution images from 120 cameras positioned at strategic points around central London. “The most difficult part is trying to stay awake,” says Callum, 27, who has been a monitor for three-and-half-years. “But you have got to try and motivate yourself to keep awake and keep across it.”
Behind him, the screens show fleeting snapshots of everyday life. A balding man in a trenchcoat checks his watch before stopping, turning round and going back the way he came along Oxford Street; a security van pulls up outside a building society; two teenage girls look at clothes in a shop window.
Things are not always so mundane. Callum says there have been a spate of robberies from security vans in the past couple of months and when asked about the best part of the job, he replies: “Helping catch a big-time drug dealer or someone with a gun. We had reports of a guy on Christmas Eve with a gun on Oxford Street and we managed to find the guy and track the armed police unit in to him and he did have a gun.”
Even before its latest revamp, the Westminster CCTV hub was well-known among governments and security forces around the world. In the past decade, 6,500 officials from 32 countries have visited to learn how public surveillance systems work, including officers from the FBI in 2011 and, last week, a delegation from South Africa.
According to Brown, the guests are rarely disappointed. Westminster has spent more on CCTV than almost any other local authority, spending more than £10m in the past 10 years. Although it now has 40 fewer cameras than it did at its peak, officials claim the latest upgrade has “improved image quality by up to 400%”.
Civil liberty campaigners are sceptical. They say the UK’s increasingly sophisticated and pervasive CCTV network is intruding on privacy with little evidence it benefits the public.
Isabella Sankey, director of policy for Liberty, said: “Research shows a camera won’t prevent an assault or mugging – at best it might displace it or provide evidence that may lead to a conviction. These results are in spite of a decade-long frenzy of public spending on CCTV diverting huge sums from other more effective crime prevention measures.”
Back in his underground office, Brown is adamant that the CCTV system he oversees has had a positive impact on life in central London and is strictly regulated.
“It has got much safer, absolutely. Before we started, Leicester Square had drug dealers and users with needles hanging out of their arms and now you have got all the ‘al fresco’ dining and theatres … We have not increased the number of the cameras but the quality of the images has improved and some of the cameras have been updated.”
He says the cameras are programmed with “privacy zones” so that residential areas or private homes are protected. The team is audited twice a week by members of the public who arrive unannounced and carry out a “dip sample” of archive footage to make sure the system is not being misused.
During the Olympics, staff will scan the crowds who come into central London as tourists or spectators: the beach volleyball takes place in Horse Guards Parade, and the marathon and cycling will pass through Westminster’s streets. Officials say their primary role will be to look out for anything from street robberies to congestion or potential “hostile reconnaissance” by terrorists.
They will also identify and report anyone seen selling counterfeit Olympic merchandise. “As the years have progressed we have evolved and we are now not just about crime and disorder but we are part of Westminster city management tool,” said Brown.
As the relentless images of street life roll across the screens behind him, Brown accepts that the increasing quality of CCTV inevitably raises issues about appropriate levels of surveillance. “If I was to say that someone leaving their street door walking in Westminster would not be picked up by a street camera that would be a lie … but it boils back down to the cliched response ‘if you are not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.’
“Yes, you may be picked up on one of our cameras but if you are going about your day-to-day business the operators will quickly move on to something else.”
Article originally posted on The guardian on Sunday 13th May 2012.