‘Stop! You are entering a restricted public space!’
spiked talks to the Londoner who campaigned to switch off a Robocop-style talking CCTV camera in Camden.
Imagine leaving your flat at dusk and walking through your communal garden as the first snow of the year begins to fall, and then suddenly you hear an American-accented voice saying: ‘Stop! This is a restricted area. Your photograph is being taken. It will be sent for processing if you do not leave the area now.’
You could be forgiven for thinking you had wandered on to the set of some sci-fi B-movie. Yet last Saturday evening this was a very real scenario for residents of the Walker House estate near King’s Cross station in central London. They were informed several months ago that surveillance cameras would be installed on the estate, but they hadn’t been warned that they were talking cameras. After sunset, anyone who used the estate’s garden – from smokers puffing under the gazebo to teens building snowmen – received the mechanical order to leave.
Finding it ‘almost unbelievable’, 41-year-old resident Jim Jepps started asking his neighbours if they shared his anger. Many did and agreed to sign his protest petition.
Jepps also made a video of the talking CCTV camera in action, uploaded it to YouTube and to his own website, The Big Smoke, and tweeted about it. It was retweeted by comedy writer Graham Linehan, who told his 150,000 followers that ‘Americans will be proud to know that their security cameras are now telling UK residents what to do’. Jepps’ website crashed, having received over 100,000 hits. The next morning the story was picked up by the national media, and Jepps’ YouTube video had been viewed tens of thousands of times.
Many were incredulous. The groundswell of opposition to talking CCTV was heartening, and by Monday, Camden Council had agreed to turn off the ‘Robocop’ voice. But, as it turns out, in switching off the voice they were only sorting out a mechanical error rather than backtracking on their surveillance policy: the workman who installed the California-produced camera had inadvertently switched on the default voice warning, an optional setting that was not actually intended for use at Walker House. The mistake was fixed, but the surveillance camera remains.
In a statement, Camden Council said: ‘We do not want to stop residents from enjoying their open spaces and communal areas and under no circumstances would we want voice messages to be used in areas where they may be disturbed.’ A council spokesman told spiked that the voice message was deactivated on Tuesday morning and that there were no plans to activate the voice setting on two other cameras in the borough that have the same function.
Yet before it emerged that the Robocop voice had been activated in error, at least two local Labour councillors had jumped to its defence. One, Roger Robinson, told the Independent that the camera was a response to ‘harassment’ of local residents, and that it could be installed in other areas, too. ‘People have been known to smash cars and steal motorbikes. We’re entitled to do something’, he said. His comments offended local residents, who proudly pointed out that on the Walker House estate not a single case of anti-social behaviour or criminal activity was reported to the police in 2011.
That it didn’t occur to locals that the voice activation could be an accident, and that councillors defended it, shows just how snugly such an initiative fits with the times. Far from being a bizarre import from mad America, as some have claimed, today’s surveillance culture and constant monitoring of public spaces is actually a very British phenomenon. Indeed, many parts of Britain already have talking CCTV cameras. The pride with which Mansfield Council representatives talk about their pioneering talking CCTV cameras in this YouTube clip makes it even more chilling than Jepps’ Robocop clip.
Some Walker House residents believe the American accent added ‘insult to injury’. Yet other British councils have used even weirder voices on their CCTV cameras, in one instance using a young child’s voice to admonish adults for dropping litter, drinking alcohol, cycling on pavements, or hanging around in crowds.
Jepps recognises this. He said it was ‘fantastic’ that there was such a high-profile response to his YouTube video and that many of his neighbours came together and agreed to petition the council. But ‘there is an assumption at the moment [among councils] that the state has to control everything about communities’, he says. ‘Because a council gets a couple of complaints from really vocal people about anti-social behaviour from residents, it then feels compelled to act and ends up leaving no space for us to build a community. Fearing anti-social behaviour, they’d rather no one used these spaces at all.’ Things like talking CCTV cameras create a culture where public spaces get shut down, says Jepps. They ‘work against communities and promote staying indoors and feeling frightened and helpless’.
While the campaign to silence the voice of the Walker House Robocop was positive, Robocop’s eye – the camera itself – is still very much switched on. Residents may not be ordered to leave the area anymore, but they will still be watched by authorities as they play, chat or smoke in their communal space. And when they leave the estate, they, like other Brits, are watched by a total of some 4.5million CCTV cameras.
Jepps hopes the furore around his video will spark a bigger debate about the use of CCTV and, more broadly, about ‘the kind of communities that we need’. He hopes councils will think twice before rolling out similar initiatives in the future. But for the tide really to start turning against the culture of surveillance in the UK, many more of us will have to make our dissatisfaction with these mechanical eyes – and mouths – known.
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