CCTV: Old Standards Verses the Modern Age

CCTV is technology whose impact on security in Britain has been enormous. It’s employed just about everywhere where crime could conceivably be committed – from private warehouses in the countryside to busy train stations in the city. But just how did CCTV come to be so widespread.

The history of CCTV

For around a century now the technology has been in place for moving images to be recorded. But this was, at first, something of a struggle. Magnetic tapes had to be manually charged and threaded, which meant that video surveillance not only required a lot of extra labour, but that it had to be operated by trained experts (and unlike modern camera operators, this expertise was restricted to wrestling with the unwieldy technology, rather than observing the results it would produce).

The first trials of the technology came about in New York State in the late 60s. By 1973, it was debuted by the NYPD in Times Square. It was supposed that this tool would allow the police department to detect crime without going to the trouble of hiring and training more officers. With hindsight, we can say that this supposition has been at least partially vindicated – while CCTV hasn’t replaced the modern police officer, it does play an invaluable supplementary role in law enforcement.

It wasn’t until much later, however, that the technology allowed for a massive growth in popularity. This change was driven, like so many other technological advances, by an improvement in the underlying technology. Digital multiplexing (a technique which enables streams of data to be read simultaneously by switching between them extremely quickly) grew in popularity, and motion-sensing and time-lapse techniques allowed cameras to record only when necessary – making the technology more affordable.

Nowadays, digital storage is cheaper than it’s ever been. A gigabyte of storage now costs just a few pence. For comparison, consider that during the 1980s, when CCTV was growing more widespread, a gigabyte would have cost several hundred thousand pounds. Consequently, the quality and capacity of CCTV technologies has grown phenomenally – and now they are ubiquitous. This is especially so in the United Kingdom, where there are more cameras per capita than anywhere else in the world.

In Britain, it’s estimated that there is around one CCTV camera for every ten people. This estimate is hotly contested, however, with various studies arriving at their conclusions through different means. Some widely-touted figures were calculated by simply counting the number of visible cameras on a single street and then extrapolating outward.

Even if it were possible to know the number of cameras that are in operation, this figure would still not give an accurate picture of the real surveillance power of CCTV cameras. A camera in a rarely-visited store-room, which captures a handful of people every month, counts for the same as one on a busy high-street, which captures millions of people every day. Clearly, location counts for a great deal!

CCTV for Business

When we hear concerns voiced about the ubiquity of CCTV in modern Britain, the first thing that comes to mind is George Orwell’s 1984, a story set in a world where a totalitarian state controls almost every aspect of life – even language. But, while the prospect of an all-powerful ‘Big Brother’ watching everything we do is a terrifying one, the reality is that most security cameras are privately owned, and that they are in use on private land. In fact, according to the British Security Industry Association, there are seventy times as many privately-owned cameras as there are publically-owned ones.

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