Healy: Britain offers cautionary tale of camera-surveillance overkill 

Times Square has 82 police surveillance cameras, but when jihadist Faisal Shahzad tried to set off a car bomb there May 1, they were no help in catching him.

That failure hasn’t cooled public officials’ camera craze, however. NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly wants an electronic eye on every block from Central Park to 34th Street, and New York Sen. Charles Schumer demanded $30 million from the feds to help complete the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, which includes a centralized camera network based on London’s “Ring of Steel.”

Actually, we have a lot to learn from the British. In the past couple decades, they’ve run a large-scale experiment with CCTV surveillance and the results suggest that the security benefits aren’t worth the cost in tax dollars and lost privacy.

In his 1941 essay “England, Your England,” George Orwell laid out some of the distinctive characteristics of the British national character, among them that “the liberty of the individual is still believed in” and “the most hateful of all names in the English ear is Nosey Parker.” One is struck, he wrote, by “the privateness of English life.”

Today, not so much. Driven by fears of IRA terrorism, the British Home Office spent nearly 80 percent of its criminal justice budget in the 1990s on surveillance technology.

Today, the U.K. has more than 4 million cameras, one for every 14 Britons. In London, with its million CCTV units, the average citizen can be recorded some 300 times a day.

In 1787, utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham dreamed up “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind,” the “Panopticon” — a building designed so that all occupants could be monitored from a central point.

There’s more than a little of Bentham’s vision in Britain’s burgeoning surveillance state. 

The Panopticon’s no panacea, though. True, video footage helped Scotland Yard capture the 7/7 bombers in 2005, even if it didn’t deter the attack. Otherwise, the Brits have little to show for a program that’s cost more than a half-billion pounds in the past decade.

An internal study by London police showed that for every 1,000 cameras, fewer than “one crime is solved per year” using video evidence.

Maybe what’s needed is more cameras! This year, British police began using unmanned aerial vehicles for such tasks as “monitoring anti-social driving” and illegal dumping. “The BAE Systems-designed craft have been used by Derbyshire police to monitor political rallies,” a Liverpool news site reported.

In 2004, Richard Thomas, Britain’s information commissioner, the official who reports to Parliament about privacy issues, publicly worried that the U.K. risked “sleepwalking into a surveillance society.” Indeed, the nonprofit group Privacy International ranks the U.K. as the worst of the Western democracies at protecting privacy.

We’re a few years behind our trans-Atlantic cousins, but we’re catching up. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has bought anti-terror cameras for towns as small as Liberty, Kan. (population 95), and Dillingham, Alaska, which is too small for a streetlight but big enough for 80 cameras.

Is any of this necessary? We could use more public debate on that question — before we sleepwalk into a surveillance society of our own.

Examiner columnist Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of “The Cult of the Presidency.”

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