CCTV and Civil Liberties after the London Terror Attacks

July 29, 2005
Without security there is no freedom, says Jack Gin

The terrorist bombings in London's transit system are a stark reminder of how vulnerable major cities are against such attack. Police authorities in London are using video recordings to analyze the activity in the areas before, during and after the bombings took place. Video analysis in the UK has already been accepted as the "third forensic", following (and supporting) fingerprints and DNA.

But it was only a few months ago, in response to criticism from civil libertarians, that British Prime Minister Tony Blair had to defend the growing use of security technologies.

"Were there to be a serious terrorist act in this country and afterwards it was thought that we had not taken the measures necessary, believe me, no one would be talking about civil liberties; they would be talking about why we had not done more to protect the security of this country." Tony Blair, Feb. 23, 2005

Despite Prime Minister Blair's ominous remarks on that February day in the House of Commons, Britain's civil libertarians continue to remind us that a Londoner gets videotaped 300 times a day. Will the civil libertarians lament over the ongoing analysis of the London Underground video footage that has already allowed Scotland Yard to identify the perpetrators of both the July 7 and now the July 21 attacks? Most likely, they will. But any protest now will serve as a reminder that most law abiding, security-minded citizens support police use of technology that enables them to deal with today's crimes.

Everyone who uses the London Underground is videotaped and the use of CCTV video surveillance has helped make London's Underground relatively crime free and even graffiti free. All of the platforms and access corridors have the visible deterrence of surveillance cameras. Even a number of the dark tunnel areas are also under surveillance thanks to active-infrared night vision equipment.

Such CCTV surveillance systems help the police do their work more effectively. They want CCTV, not for supporting crime statistics, but for policing. Much of the hard work in policing is about gathering evidence. Every day, well-known criminals are able to evade the justice system when police cannot present incriminating evidence. But in thousands and perhaps millions of untold real-case histories, CCTV is providing the evidence that lead to arrests and causes convictions.

The UK's previous worst terrorist bombing, the 1998 car bombing in the Northern Ireland town of Omagh, is such a story, and one that has been mostly untold. That explosion took the lives of 29 people, mostly women and children. Like many terrorist attacks, this horrific bombing could have gone unsolved forever. But police made arrests, swiftly and quietly. Convictions soon followed, restoring confidence that justice can be served.

How those arrests were made has remained largely untold, except to insiders in the security industry. They heard unofficial accounts about how footage from new license plate capture cameras located at Northern Ireland borders was correlated with Omagh's town centre CCTV surveillance that captured video of the vehicle before its explosion. This police work of linking varied surveillance data, I was told, is what led to the prompt arrests.

Recently, we have seen British police authorities being congratulated by Prime Minister Blair for their surprisingly quick "magnificent work" in identifying the four terrorist bombers from the July 7 explosions. In what the world had expected would have been a long arduous process of evidence gathering, the near immediate identification of the terrorists means that the police work has already progressed to critical next levels of the investigation. Police now have arrested a man believed to have been one of the suspects in the July 21 bombing; his image was captured by CCTV systems jumping a turnstile at London's Warren St. Station.

The July 7 terrorist attack in London is more complicated and more calculated than the Omagh attack of 1998. While the authorities continue to analyze thousands of surveillance videos, they are also asking private companies and the public to help with providing cellular phone records, pictures and email records. Even tourist camcorder tapings are being requested.

Such requests illustrate that the police want all the help they can get. As security professionals, and as citizens also, do we not owe it to our own police forces - the very people charged with preserving the safety of our communities - to provide the very best technology available to help them do their jobs?

I believe that it is in our collective interest -- the interest of public security and justice - to equip police properly over the protests of personal privacy pundits. Those who argue feverishly for civil liberties may point to questionable statistics that simply do not account for all the untold stories of how advances in technology have legitimately helped police fulfill their responsibilities. For those who would rather limit the capabilities of their police forces, jeopardize public safety and prolong the suffering of victims, I suggest that without security, we would lose the foundation upon which civil liberties exist. Without security, we would have no freedom.

About the Author:

Jack Gin is President and CEO of Extreme CCTV, a producer of active-infrared technology and precision-engineered surveillance products with offices in the UK, Canada, and the British West Indies. The company's products have been used in some of the London Underground's tunnels. He is a regular contributor to various trade publications and speaker at several events in North America and the UK on the topics of infrared, night-vision surveillance and security.