Big Brother Strikes Fear
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In the land that gave birth to "Big Brother", the future has caught up with a present in which drunks, hoodlums, litterbugs and other wrongdoers are being yelled at and lectured to – as well as watched – from lampposts.
Britain has 4.2 million surveillance cameras – a fifth of the world’s total – hanging off its infrastructure, and loudspeakers with microphones are being fitted to them in a government attempt to strike more fear into the hearts of miscreants.
In the northeast England city of Middlesbrough, disembodied voices bark out orders to "pick up that cigarette butt" or "put that candy wrapper in the bin," shocking people caught on camera in the act of crossing to the wrong side of the law.
Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government is spending nearly $1 million to link microphones and loudspeakers to its vast network of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras as part of its "Respect" offensive to try to control the burgeoning anti-social behavior that plagues the nation’s cities, towns and villages.
It works like this: When a CCTV camera spots someone breaking a window, say, or tossing a crumpled cigarette package to the sidewalk, the deed is monitored by local government officials based in control rooms who then bark a warning to the erring party to clean up their act, or else.
A dozen talking cameras have gone into service in Middlesbrough, and the Home Office – Britain’s interior department – is ecstatic.
Over past few weeks alone, it said, "fights have been broken up, litterers have sheepishly picked up their rubbish, and skateboarders have stopped rolling through traffic when told to do so" by the nearest loudspeaker.
In dealing with litterbugs, says Middlesbrough Council security manager Jack Bonnar, the talking cameras have "proven to be a 100 percent success." Drunkenness and fighting are more difficult to address, he said, but even then, "the speakers are coming into their own, and we’re recording about a 65 percent to 70 percent success rate for those kinds of offenses."
Officials said a verbal warning suffices most of the time. If it doesn’t, the videotape from the camera becomes evidence for arrest and prosecution.
So pleased is the government with the results of the Middlesbrough experiment that it will hang loudspeakers and microphones to CCTV cameras in another 20 designated trouble spots across the nation in the next few months.