What is CCTV?

‘CCTV’ stands for closed circuit television.

CCTV is used for a number of monitoring and surveillance purposes, but is mainly used for security purposes.

CCTV involves the use of an unmanned, remotely mounted video camera system, transmitting live pictures back to a television screen where developments can be monitored and recorded.


CCTV was first developed in the late 1970s and was initially confined to high-risk security targets, such as banks.

The units were expensive and picture quality was poor for a long time, with the vague grainy silhouettes of fugitives attracting some public derision when broadcast on programmes such as ‘Crimewatch’.

Since then, the quality of CCTV has improved dramatically and the use of CCTV has risen exponentially, with shops and the police the primary consumers of the technology.

Modern CCTV cameras are now capable of remote operation and produce high-resolution colour picture quality. CCTV has come so far that it is now capable of recognising individual car number plates and recording them on central databases. The congestion-charging scheme introduced in London in 2003 is an example of the advancing potential of CCTV technology.

A ‘talking’ CCTV system was trialled in Middlesbrough in 2006 as part of a government crack-down on anti-social behaviour. The CCTV cameras were fitted with speakers which allowed staff in control centres to speak directly to people misbehaving on the street, telling them for example to stop fighting or pick up litter. The trial was such a success that the scheme was extended to 20 more towns and cities in 2007 and is continuing to be rolled out across the country.


The development of CCTV was felt by many to be a major breakthrough in crime prevention. It forms a major part of crime prevention strategy in the UK and is often used as important evidence in court trials and in the identification of suspects. CCTV may have other deterrence and safety-related benefits, although these are debated.

However, the proliferation of CCTV cameras in public places has led to some unease about the erosion of civil liberties and individual human rights, along with warnings of an Orwellian ‘big brother’ culture.

Critics of CCTV say that constant CCTV surveillance of public places is intrusive and a breach of privacy. What is done with recorded CCTV footage is also a matter of some controversy.

This complaint is illustrated by the case of Geoffrey Peck, who was ‘caught’ on CCTV in 1995 attempting to commit suicide on Brentford town centre High Street. The footage was then widely disseminated to the public at large, without his consent. In 2003, the European Court of Human Rights found that, although Mr Peck was in a ‘public’ place he was still entitled to some privacy and that it was not foreseeable for him to have expected so much public exposure.

Therefore, the Court considered the use of the material and the lack of remedial relief under UK law to be a breach of Article Eight of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to respect for family and private life, and the UK was ordered to pay compensation to Mr Peck.

The case highlighted potential gaps in the UK’s protection of individual privacy and helped influence MP’s calls for the introduction of a free standing privacy law in 2003.

Following a wide-ranging review of CCTV in England and Wales, the National CCTV Strategy was published in October 2007 and made a number of recommendations. A multi-agency National CCTV Strategy Programme Board was then created to co-ordinate and develop the recommendations and to establish the future strategic direction of CCTV.

The following agencies have a seat on the National CCTV Strategy Board: Information Commissioners Office (ICO); Ministry of Justice (MoJ); British Security Industry Association (BSIA); National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA); Home Office Scientific Development Branch (HOSDB); Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO); Crown Prosecution Service (CPS); British Transport Police (BTP); Security Industry Authority (SIA); Local Government Association (LGA); Department for Transport (DfT); Her Majesties Courts Service (HMCS); Office of Surveillance Commissioner (OSC).

But concerns have continued to be raised about the intrusive nature of CCTV and the legal aspects.

The Coalition government elected in May 2010 pledged to implement a full programme of measures to “reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion”. These measures included plans for further regulation of CCTV.

The Protection of Freedoms Bill introduced to Parliament in February 2011 contained provisions for further CCTV regulation and also for the appointment of a Surveillance Camera Commissioner to monitor a code of practice for the operation of CCTV.

CameraWatch – [the UK watchdog on CCTV compliance with the Data Protection Act] – claimed that over 90% of CCTV systems did not comply with the law – i.e. less than 10% were operated and managed legally in accordance with Data Protection legislation. The organisation warned that it would be “too easy” for anyone to challenge CCTV evidence in a court of law because of the way images were gathered and managed.

The Home Office launched a consultation in March 2011 on how to regulate the use of CCTV and automatic number plate recognition technology, the purpose being to give operators and members of the public an opportunity to say how the use of this technology could be made “more proportionate and effective.”

The Government said the consultation, set to close on 25th May 2011, was “the first step towards a new code of practice for CCTV” as set out in the Protection of Freedoms Bill.


There are only 1.85 million CCTV cameras in the UK, not 4.2 million as commonly claimed, according to research undertaken by the deputy chief constable of Cheshire and ACPO lead on CCTV, Graeme Gerrard.

Weighted average (matching national urban/rural profile): 2.805 cameras per 100 population
Privately owned cameras in UK = (2.805/100)*60,776,238 = 1,704,773 cameras
Publicly owned cameras in UK = 33,433 (Gerrard/Thompson estimate)
Cameras on public transportation = 115,000 (Gerrard/Thompson estimate, based on Transport for London figures)
Total CCTV cameras in UK = 1.85 million.

Source: CCTV User Group – March 2011


“We will further regulate CCTV.”

The Coalition: Our Programme for government – May 2010

“Our priority needs to be to make these CCTV systems – on which we all very much depend – legal as quickly as possible. This will without doubt raise standards of the capture, quality and security of CCTV images. Once this has been done we can then be confident on the full reliance of CCTV – and thus utilise fully all aspects of this wonderful tool.”

CameraWatch – March 2011

“The UK is the most spied upon nation in the world – why doesn’t it have the lowest crime rate?”
“Research shows that CCTV simply does not work, so isn’t it just a huge waste of money?”

NO CCTV campaign – 2011