British surveillance not just for hardened criminals

Municipalities sometimes focus cameras on banal offenses like parking tickets, littering


LONDON -- Millions of security cameras throughout Britain aimed to combat terrorism and crime also catch litterbugs, parking violators and, oops, doggy doo left on the grass.

Britons complain that local officials use the cameras to prosecute petty offenses.

The latest outrage came last month when a dog owner in Bristol, England, was fined for "dog fouling" after being shown pictures of his mixed collie, Mitzy, squatting in a grassy commons area. The owner, Paul Griffiths, was fined $320 and ordered to pay $1,760 after failing to appear in court.

"We're the most monitored society in the world," says Jen Corlew, spokeswoman for Liberty, a civil liberties group in London. "And we're very concerned there's abuse of this."

Britain has 4.2 million surveillance cameras -- 20% of the world's closed-circuit cameras, according to the nation's independent Information Commissioners Office. There is a camera for every 14 people. An average Londoner is captured on camera 300 times a day, the office reported.

The case of Mitzy isn't the only example:

*In the Borough of Poole on England's south coast, the cameras tracked a family to see whether members had lied about their address to get a child into a preferred school in a neighboring area. They hadn't.

*London's Westminster City Council called for a review of its 250 cameras after people argued about unwarranted parking tickets and helped drive up complaints 13% against the council in the first quarter of this year.

*London's Borough of Chelsea and Kensington used the cameras to catch a man sporting his mother's disabled parking sticker to evade more than $25,000 in parking fees.

In a spring survey by the Press Association news agency, local councils acknowledged turning cameras on those who violate ordinances for cleaning up after dogs, littering, benefit fraud, dumping waste and underage alcohol sales.

Police use the cameras to help track suspects of serious crimes such as murder and assault.

Corlew says the number of local authorities who use the surveillance for minor offenses "is quite shocking."

"There's other, less-intrusive ways of stopping an individual who is a dog fouler," she says.

Simon Milton, chairman of the Local Government Association, warned councils in England and Wales last month that they risk alienating the public by "overzealous" use of cameras.

"Our advice is that save in the most unusual and extreme circumstances, it is inappropriate to use these powers for trivial matters," he wrote in a letter to council leaders.

Ken Jones, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, issued a similar warning last week. He told police chiefs that abusing surveillance powers causes "widespread unease" in the public and needs to be stopped.

The councils have defended their usage of the cameras, as in the case of Mitzy's owner.

Griffiths, 48, told the Bristol Evening Post that his dog only urinated. Camera images showed the dog squatting and nothing else, he said.

Bristol Councilor Judith Price said in a written statement, "It may seem easier at the time to walk away from the dog mess, but if you get caught, you will be fined."