Historical Perspectives on the Uses and Abuses of CCTV Technology


To shift the priorities of civil liberties groups, central and local government away from simplistic concerns about ‘open-street’ CCTV surveillance towards a more historically-nuanced focus on the issues raised by automated CCTV-database technologies and its integration with databases.

Key messages

  • Edward Higgs has concluded that the surveillance state is nothing new, and was in some ways more intrusive during the early modern period than it is now. The centralised, automated database state however is a modern development, dating back to the 1970s, and poses new risks to civil liberties.
  • Case studies taken from the 1970s and 1980s, such as the development of the National Police Computer and Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) technology, offer lessons for the current debates around current electronic surveillance projects being pursued by the government.
  • The history of ANPR contains important parallels for current debates about introducing facial recognition technology on a widespread basis. It was originally developed by the Home Office to aid in port security and the detection of stolen vehicles. It has since been utilised in a number of varied and unexpected ways, from counter-terrorism to congestion charging. Automated ID technologies reduce cost-per-identification substantially, making them uniquely susceptible to function creep.
  • Computer systems capable of storing and retrieving large quantities of personal data on the entire population have been utilised in Britain from the 1970s. They have proved useful for a wide range of government functions, but historical precedents in Northern Ireland suggest they require a high standard of independent oversight and intentional segregation of sensitive information to secure and limit their misuse.
  • In Northern Ireland, military computers based on civilian police technology were used, largely in secret, to aide loyalist paramilitaries in assassinations.
  • These historical case studies highlight the risks posed by function creep, where a system is used beyond its original remit, and the over-centralisation of data, particularly from a data security perspective. They show that, without strong oversight and long-term perspective, systems developed with the best of intentions can have unintended consequences which pose a threat to civil liberties and public privacy.

Policy Context

  • The Draft Communications Data Bill was recently rejected by a Joint Committee of MPs and Peers amid serious criticism of its provisions.
  • Appointment in September 2012 of Andrew Rennison to the new role of Surveillance Camera Commissioner (SCC), responsible for regulating the use of CCTV under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012.
  • Controversy following publishing of The Report of the Patrick Finucane Review, which found evidence of serious collusion between security forces and Loyalist paramilitary groups carrying out assassinations in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s. The Report concluded that much of the data used in this collusion were vehicle registration numbers obtained from vehicle registration databases not originally intended for such purposes, and in breach of the Army’s own rules.
  • Following a FOI request from civil rights pressure group Big Brother Watch, it has recently been found that in the past three years, 294 public organisations have faced action over their use of the database containing details of car registrations and driving licenses – including nearly half the countries local councils.


  • A review of long-term electronic surveillance technology policy from the Home Office, including some of the historical considerations mentioned above, before any revised Communications Data Bill is presented to parliament in 2013.
  • Produce H&P papers assessing in more detail the development and consequences of government databases and ANPR technology from the 1970s to the present before May 2013.
  • Evidence of greater consideration of the connections between CCTV and databases, and the possibility of long-term function creep in publications from the SCC by July 2013.
  • To facilitate discussion between local government, national government and regulators on the need for long-term planning with historical underpinnings in relation to surveillance technology broadly conceived, with evidence produced by September 2013.


  • Civil servants at the Home Office working on CCTV – in particular, those working on the HO’s Science and Technology Strategy and the Centre for Applied Science and Technology.
  • Public servants working on CCTV and database policy in local authorities.
  • Officials from the recently created SCC.


  • Organise seminars within the Home Office to present detailed cases studies from the 1970s and 1980s on CCTV, databases and data security.
  • Hold a local government-orientated conference, bringing together historians, security experts, civil servants, ICO officials and politicians to discuss implications of surveillance technology, past, present and future, and the potential long-term issues and pitfalls that can arise from the use of automated surveillance technologies.
  • Organise a public panel on electronic surveillance in historical perspective at a university or public institution in London, to raise public awareness and engagement with these issues.

Monitoring & evaluation

  • Evaluate Home Office seminars using feedback forms, completed on the day, and analyse results.
  • Observe and make notes at the conference to see how database and CCTV technology is discussed on the day, and how much the historical-dimension is raised during the day.
  • Email attendees of the public panel sessions with a short survey to complete and then analyse results.
  • Use internet analytic services to measure the impact of events and publications on internet awareness relating to policy and historical perspectives on CCTV


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H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

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