The proliferation of CCTV cameras across the UK over the past couple of decades has been amazing to behold.

There are now estimated to be more than 4.2 million cameras operating in the UK, one camera for every 14 people. London is one of the most watched cities in the world, with more than 500,000 cameras in operation.

The attitude toward this often intrusive form of surveillance has shifted from one of suspicion, conjuring up images of George Orwell’s Big Brother in 1984, to please come and watch my every move.

At a populist level, the change in attitude is reflected in the emergence of the television programme Big Brother - where people voluntarily put themselves into a house in order to be spied upon 24 hours a day. The prize: fame and the chance to never again be able to walk anonymously down the street.

The transformation in the attitude to the surveillance society has been breathtaking to behold. I remember as a journalist in Belfast and Derry back in the 1990s covering stories concerning the monitoring towers that were built in the cities. They loomed high over the city walls, operated by the then Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British Army. These dominating observation positions were no doubt intended to intimidate but they were sold as being there to protect the population from terrorism.

There were stories of individuals being told at check points what they had been doing in their own houses the night before. People in those days did not fall for the propaganda, instead running long campaigns for the removal of the towers and surveillance devices.

The towers came down with the peace process. However, coming back to London at that time I wondered if something less intrusive was put up in the capital on the basis that if it stops crime would there be such opposition?

The prophecy proved correct, with people across the country now clamouring for CCTV to address crime. Whether of course such surveillance does cut crime is questionable, with evidence that it just shifts it from one area to another. Though I guess come the day when every square inch of the country and every movement by a human being is recorded on a camera somewhere this may not be the case.

Some years ago, I interviewed former Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall John Alderson, who warned that the cry of dictators down the ages has been 'give me your liberties and I will provide security'.

Today, it would seem that people are more than ever prepared to trade their liberties for security, though they would do well to remember that once lost it will be very difficult to get those hard won liberties back.

  • Paul Donovan is a Redbridge councillor for Wanstead village and blogger. See