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UK: Londoners Don't Mind Living Under Eye Of Surveillance Cameras

A police officer monitors images obtained by CCTV cameras Pictures of the faces of the terrorists who attacked London’s transport system -- first on 7 July and then again on 21 July -- circled the world almost immediately. They were taken by closed-circuit television cameras, or CCTVs, at London’s subway and railway stations. CCTV cameras have proved a vital tool in the fight against terrorism. And in London, they seem to be everywhere. According to a recent survey, London is under greater camera surveillance than any other city in the world. Some Londoners complain they feel they are constantly being watched like a character out of George Orwell's novel "1984." But most city residents say that under the current circumstances, it's probably the lesser of two evils.

London, 25 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- CCTVs can be seen virtually everywhere in London -- at subway and railway stations, on double-decker buses, and at many other public places.

The closed-circuit television cameras have enabled the police to identify the faces of the men involved in the terror attack of 7 July as well as the failed subsequent attack on 21 July. They have also helped emergency services to deal with the attacks.

Security experts say the CCTV system has played a more important role in the aftermath of the attacks than police might care to admit.

“I think that’s fairly obvious, isn’t it, really," said Peter Conway, editor of the security magazine “Risk UK”. "Because the only identification they’ve got of them is images caught from cameras. So, you can’t really argue that without them they would know who they were.”

Conway explained that the pictures that have circled the world in the days since the bombings seem grainy and inconclusive. But the original digital footage, he said, may have been of much better quality.

“Those images were never intended to be printed on the front page of a newspaper," Conway said. "When you do that, they look like rubbish. But if you actually look at them on digital equipment, and they compress the images and decompress properly, and they’re transmitted properly, you get something very, very different.”

Conway added that there is no doubt that CCTV cameras can be an “extremely powerful asset “ for security operations.

A spokesman for London’s Metropolitan Police explained: “Obviously, the security-alert state is much higher since the 7th of July. And the CCTV camera, of course, is one of the security measures we have a whole range of, some of which are obvious to the traveling public, and some of which aren’t. And we keep those measures under constant review.”

Conway said the police are understandably wary of showing how much help the CCTV cameras have provided in the recent terror hunt. But the rising role of CCTV is undeniable.

The cameras are used to monitor traffic flow and record the number plates of speeding cars. They are also used to protect office buildings and factories, and cameras in shopping centers watch the flow of shoppers and guard shops against theft.

Conway, however, added that the cameras will only do what they are programmed for. In most cases, those are very specific activities. Sometimes they can only be activated by movement within the monitored area. Most cameras can monitor the general flow of people or cars, but cannot distinguish faces or car number plates.

Some Londoners say they are uneasy about the multitude of cameras being used in the city. Fred, a 38-year-old postal worker, said he has the constant sensation of being watched.
The cameras are used to monitor traffic flow and record the number plates of speeding cars. They are also used to protect office buildings and factories, and cameras in shopping centers watch the flow of shoppers and guard shops against theft.

“I think they’re going a bit over the top, actually," Fred said. "You’ve got the CCTV cameras looking at the people.”

Conway laughs these worries off. Yet he agreed that many people may be truly apprehensive about the cameras, and have an uncomfortable sense that Orwell's "Big Brother" is observing their every move.

“The problem is, if people see a camera, they believe it’s watching them," Conway said. "But what they don’t realize is that the camera may be set up to do a certain job. So, a camera on the building, it might be that only when the gate to the building is opened that the camera is active. So, a lot of people who say that it’s invasive, it’s invading their privacy, that they’re being watched all the time -- they're making their statement from the position of ignorance.”

Conway claimed that only one out of every 10 Londoners fear the eye of the CCTV cameras. Jane, a 37-year-old secretary on a shopping trip with her teenage son, said she feels no worries.

“If you’re not guilty, why should you feel nervous?" Jane said. "They should put [up] more cameras, as far as I'm concerned.”

Jane's son, 17-year-old Tony, said the cameras haven't meant the end of crime in the city, but that he doesn't mind being watched if they help more than hurt.

“People are still getting away," Tony said. "It’s not making much difference, I don’t think, in a way. But, I don’t [worry]. No. It doesn't bother me. No.”

Both Tony and his mother say they hope the new, clearer CCTV camera pictures of two terrorist suspects released by the Metropolitan Police on last night may prove to be the key in securing their capture.