The Price Orwell Paid – The Rise And Fall Of CCTV In Europe

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CCTV – otherwise known as closed circuit television – is a system of digital camera and image transmission, to be viewed remotely via a private channel.  

cctv camera

The images, moving or still, obtained with this system can be automatically processed and / or played back and then archived or destroyed.

CCTV image quality is overall inferior to today’s security cameras, which offers much crisper images and more features.  

Still, CCTV has been around longer and the general objective of this technology is and has always been to contribute to the security of goods and / or people.

Conversely, there are those who saw the proliferation of these cameras as quite Orwellian, a la 1984.  

“Big Brother Is Watching”… if you have a spare couple hours, here’s the 1954 TV adaptation of the book…mind control, the elimination of independent thought… all of that good stuff!

In this article, we will talk about the proliferation of CCTV cameras over the decades, and specifically in Europe where it was the hope that these cameras would save the world from crime, and we will also discuss what appears to be the slow demise of CCTV at the hands of stark statistics and even more efficient (smart IP) cameras in recent years.

Regardless of whether or not you are pro or anti CCTV, this technology has certainly become known to us as a modern society.  

You’ve surely seen many examples of CCTV in movies and on tv over the years, often used to express a gritty realness or a paranoid feeling of “being watched” for dramatic effect, but in reality it has existed for over 50 years in an effort to add security to various locations via remote surveillance, such as with the example provided below…

In recent years, yes, CCTV has moved beyond government and commercial purposes, and into the home and into the hands of residential users, accessed remotely using smart home security systems which use different protocols (eg. Z-Wave, WIFI, Zigbee, etc.) but perform the same basic function.  

As we’ve already mentioned, CCTV’s popularity as a consumer product has been far overshadowed in such a brief time by the growing popularity of smart cameras.  

In this year, smart cameras are now becoming the dominant form of home security camera, while CCTV cameras are relegated to the 2nd tier of what’s considered effective.

Be that as it may, the concept of this type of CCTV filming, by way of this remotely controlled technology, has been around for decades.  

It was first used during World War II by the Germans for safety reasons: to observe the launch of their missiles, so it does have a solid foundation in operating privately and being by and large hacker-proof.

During the 1980s, the UK was the first country to fully implement this system following the IRA attacks leading to the so-called “Ring Of Steel”.


The UK currently remains the European country which is the most “tele-monitored” via CCTV cameras. London is known as the city where the proliferation of such video (both public and private) is the largest.  

Beyond the 1980’s, CCTV policies have been implemented in several European cities during the 1990s, with the thought that the more monitoring authorities did, the more crimes that could be prevented.

Benefits And Drawbacks Of CCTV Technology

According to its supporters, CCTV helps prevent terrorism and more generally crime (hold ups, burglaries, assaults on roads, etc.) and keep an eye on large groups of people in areas where incidents are known to occur.

digital camera image footage

In contrast, the detractors of CCTV (especially when it comes to surveying public places) basically accuse it of breach of privacy, but there is talk also its high cost and inefficiency. 

According to several reports, including the United States and the United Kingdom, they paint a critical and perhaps scathing review of CCTV based on certain statistics that have come to light.

Scotland Yard’s Opinion Of CCTV

A representative from Scotland Yard to the Security Document World Conference of April 2008 speaking of the “utter fiasco” and “complete failure” of CCTV, because, as they said, police officers are not sufficiently trained to use it, and those who are trained often do not want to spend time watching the recorded video footage “because it’s a lot of work”.  

So this can be taken one of two ways – either CCTV simply has no inherent effect on crime, or the people who are supposed to be watching the cameras and using the footage can’t be bothered.  

Interestingly, recently Scotland Yard seems to have changed their tune quite drastically in regards to CCTV cameras, now wanting to put them in every home.

1984, First CCTV Cameras, and Ubiquitous Supervision

In 1949, the English writer George Orwell described in his novel 1984 of a world entirely under the control of a ubiquitous force called Big Brother (actually an incarnation of the totalitarian state) able to identify the actions of a population with a huge park cameras scattered throughout the city.  

Since then, some might argue this once “paranoid” view of the world is now very much in effect, with cameras being installed everywhere.  

TXH1138 is another dystopian classic which captures the paranoia of being monitored all the time quite well.  

If you love movies about dystopian futures where everyone is just a number, we highly recommend this film. It was directed by George Lucas, a long time before he dreamed up Jar Jar Binks.  

In fact, it could easily be argued that today’s surveillance goes well beyond any kind of paranoia, with companies like Google mapping out the entire earth and knowing where most of us are at all times.  Hooray!  (Luckily, the youth of today seem to enjoy the “interconnectedness” it brings rather than rebel against it).  

Objectively, we think it can easily be argued either way, don’t you think?

Compared to this high level of comprehensive surveillance that is provided by companies like Google, CCTV seems positively primitive in terms of what it does, although there’s always something about that CCTV camera eye staring at us that many find unnerving moreso than our friendly laptop telling us where we are going, or suggesting a movie for us on a Friday night.

Here’s a video talking about how Google knows where we are all the time, and it has something to do with satellites, quantum mechanics, and smart phones.

The first CCTV system was installed by Siemens AG in 1942 in Germany to watch the launch of rockets V-2 2.  

the v2 rocket

Development Over Time

first portable video camera

The first portable video camera came into the world in the year 1970 (and the first camcorder in 1983).  

In today’s marketplace, the most successful portable video cameras are all digital, color, and allow optimal control zooming and focus.  

When portable cameras were introduced, they didn’t always have the best features and so their applications were limited.

The definition of “secure” cameras is statutorily defined in some countries. The required definition is said to be 4CIF or 704 × 576 pixels.  

This definition very rarely achieved by older cameras or even some still on the market, with specs usually being something like CIF equal to 352 ×  288 pixels or VGA , 640 × 480 pixels.  

Still, when security is needed, many store owners, for instance, will take whatever they can get.

It is possible to have a lower resolution camera if it helps to make a face easier for identification at 90 ×  60 pixels.  

On older cameras, this means that the face must represent 5% of the area of the image (1% in 4 CIF).  

Moreover, the number of frames per second required is 6 or 12, depending on the situation, slow or fast.

New facilities using CCTV cameras for reasons of security must comply with the law. Home users, too, must comply with the law if submitting camera footage in for evidence.

Here’s a video that looks at the law and CCTV cameras from 2015.  If you want to get to know CCTV from a legal perspective, watch this, as it talks about how the law applies to using CCTV on your premises.

Introduction of CCTV in the UK

CCTV was introduced to London for the first time following the attacks of the IRA 6. In the UK, a large-scale video surveillance policy was undertaken at the beginning of 1990.

Today, the cameras in the UK cover most of the city centers, and many stations and parking lots.

The approximate numbers of CCTV cameras in the UK range from 65000 from 7 to 500,000 cameras in London and more than 4 million in the UK in total.

With all of these cameras being installed over the years, one would think that there would be an immediately drop in crime rates of various kinds.

But, a 2003 report for the Institute of Britain’s internal security studies indicates that it is impossible to say that these cameras have had an impact on the reduction of crime or delinquency, which only serves as proof for detractors and naysayers of CCTV.

CCTV Security In France

Patrick Balkany
Patrick Balkany – CCTV proponent

A CCTV video surveillance policy was introduced in France almost 30 years ago now.

Since the initiative of Patrick Balkany in 1990 in Levallois-Perret, CCTV has become increasingly widespread in France: with businesses large and small seeing the annual install of between 25 and 30 000 new CCTV systems.

In 2007, the number of cameras “authorized” (therefore in the public space) was estimated at 340,000.

These cameras, as you have no doubt seen, are quite well represented at airports and train stations, as well as around the roadways and public transportation routes.  

Even with other protocols becoming more popular and the rise of the smart home security camera, CCTV cameras are still everywhere in Europe and around the world.

In February 2009 “on internal security objectives,” Michele Alliot-Marie said that as a goal of “reaching 60,000 cameras on the streets by 2010.

A decree made on 22 January 2009, which amended the original decree of 1996, created the conditions for more rapid examination of files that were to facilitate this growth.  

In today’s environment, with terrorism attacks being sadly rather common, one would think that CCTV cameras would be considered helpful, but some experts still do not agree.

The Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie had, in October 2007, created a plan, part of which is to connect the city surveillance centers (CSU), managed by the municipalities, with the police and gendarmerie.  

80 of these initiatives were approved in May 2008, 122 in February 2009, allowing police to have direct access to the images recorded by the cameras installed by municipalities.  

The Inter-ministerial Fund Delinquency Prevention (SIFT) were to finance 100% of these connections.

As you might expect, these types of initiatives always seem to create a backlash among those who do not wish to be “watched” all the time, as well as those who believe that an increased number of these cameras do nothing to stem crime rates.

cctv center

CCTV Monitoring Centers

These CCTV monitoring centers are often protected by biometric devices for access control, which is intended to make citizens feel safer knowing that it will only be the authorities that can view the footage.  

However, this can be counter-argued by those who do not trust these authorities, and the Big Brother concept is once again made manifest regardless of any intention to make society a safer place. 

CCTV In France

Bertrand Delanoe
Bertrand Delanoe

France, although the rate of crime is generally lower compared to that of the U.S.A., has in recent times experienced some truly awful attacks at the hands of terrorists.  

In previous years, there have been efforts to increase surveillance in various parts of the country.  

Clearly, we can see that CCTV cameras are not the answer to preventing random attacks of violence, but really, who knows that answer? The question, as it relates to CCTV cameras, is simply this: do they help at all?

For a long time, French authorities seem to think that they are worth a shot.  

For instance, in Paris in 2009, Mayor Bertrand Delanoe and his team accepted the “CCTV Paris Plan” proposed by police, to further integrate more video surveillance into society.  

The Big Brother Awards call this the price Orwell paid.  

In his “ranking of cities to flee,” the satirical regional newspaper of le Ravi uses among its indicators the number of video surveillance cameras per capita.

le ravi journal

Over the years, many publications have accused governments of placing the public under too much surveillance.  

A quick Google search of “cities under surveillance” shows that there has been a long standing concern with the growth of surveillance technology, ranging from questioning its effectiveness, to accusing it of taking over society.  

While it may be risky to generalize, we would wager to say that many of these claims and anger are generally aimed at the government, while “friendly” companies that keep track of us for “different” reasons that seem more innocuous are simply more acceptable.  

There is definitely a widespread bias against the government, regardless of its intentions.  

That said, the government, as a ruling body, is of course made up of people like you and me.  

And in some instances, those government representatives may hold differing opinions on things like CCTV cameras and how effective they view them to be.  

For instance, in April 2014, Eric Piolle, environmentalist mayor of Grenoble, said that he is not in favor of maintaining the widespread use of city surveillance cameras in public areas, and instead offering to resell them to the mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi.  

So, as you can see, different government officials don’t always agree with the consensus, and can take action against it if its possible to do so.

Presence Of CCTV Switzerland

A CCTV system is present in all Swiss trains and almost every bus and tram.

The record number (if you can call such a thing a “record”) of CCTV camera implementation is for the RER Zurich, with more than 6,000 cameras in trains and at stations.

By December 2012, the goal was for all stations in the canton of Zurich as well as 300 other stations to have a video surveillance system installed.

Cameras are also quite often installed in neighborhoods with higher rates of certain types of crime, such as prostitution.

This was the case in Olten as part of a pilot project.  

Less than 5 years ago, the city of Zurich had 2,500 surveillance cameras installed for the safety of residents, Geneva with 1000, Lausanne and Bern 700-800. 

This brings up an interesting point about CCTV cameras, which is to say that while it can’t be argued that these types of cameras or cameras in general don’t document crimes (of course they do – pay a visit to YouTube), what can be questioned is whether the surveillance of crimes is a way to stop them from happening.  

And so the debate goes on, as CCTV cameras continue to capture criminals in the act, but these same criminals are more often than not simply not brought to justice as a result of being recorded.

That being said, Switzerland is still a land with a lot of CCTV cameras in operation.  Swiss motorways are all under video surveillance, and there are more than 9000 keeping a watchful eye on roads across the country.

The Swiss Federal Council has defended the installation of CCTV cameras in the trains, citing the need to “strengthen security in railway stations and trains”.  

You may think, “Is this really a reason to install such cameras?”  

This is a fair question, if there is no definite proof that security will be strengthened by the presence of such cameras.  

Smart Home Security VS CCTV – Is One Superior?

Here on this website, we must say that it is our held belief that smart home security really does help the average user.  

Why? Well, simply because smart home security systems have a few definitive differences between them and CCTV.  

This is another discussion entirely, but to put it briefly, it is because it is technology which empowers users to police their own property.  

exterior picture quality with the microseven IP wireless camera

Much of the so called failure of CCTV can be pinned on the fact that “someone” is watching.  

Who is that someone, and what can they do when a crime occurs.  

Possibly it is quite likely that although there is a camera and it is working, it is not equipped to have anyone respond in any way as to be effective.  

With smart home security systems, you are the one who will be notified if a sensor is tripped.  

You are basically in charge of watching everything, and so it shifts the focus onto the user to keep a watch on things.  

This is fundamentally different than CCTV, and may one day get its own article on this website.

CCTV Law In Countries Outside Of Europe

Some countries have established laws to regulate the installation of CCTV cameras.

This is the case with New Zealand, where laws relating to the installation of cameras were introduced in an effort to do – what else? – fight crime.

These laws, in particular, involve the consultation of those affected by the implementation of electronic monitoring.  

We think that this is logical – to create a dialogue with the very people these cameras are meant to protect, and hear their opinions on how effective they think CCTV or other such systems may be.  

In all cases where CCTV systems are put in place, there is obviously some motivation for it.  In a democratic society, the best option might be to conduct surveys where a conversation occurs about the effectiveness of such systems.  

Of course, surveys are a lot of work, which is why more often than not decisions are made based on a lack of statistical data, and this always leads to more problems down the road.

For instance, a great deal of footage of this earthquake was captured by CCTV cameras.  The question then becomes: Ok, but what is the value of this footage?  

Wrapping Up – Our Opinion On Everything So Far

It is difficult to remain completely arbitrary on such a divisive topic as CCTV cameras and its rigorous implementation into society as a whole.  

Being that we are a security website, we feel that to stand back and have no opinion on the matter is a weak stance, and so, before signing off, we will reiterate our opinion on all of this.

For those who are anti-public-surveillance, you will be glad to know that there is a definite trend moving towards the empowerment of the home and business owner to keep track of their own affairs using smart home technology, powered by such protocols such as Z-Wave and WIFI, among others.  

As camera surveillance actually begin with CCTV, as we have described in our rather lengthy diatribe above, we consider smart home security cameras to be an evolution of the technology, and we are definitely in favor of it.  

CCTV seems to have proliferated over the past 50 years but it is now becoming somewhat obsolete as new technologies can do more, and do it faster, easier, and best of all – for your eyes only.  

If you believe that even with these home systems, someone might be watching or hacking into your system unbeknownst to you, then you may wish to avoid urban areas altogether, and never own property in the city.  

Our opinion is that smart home technologies really are meant to minimize crime, and make life easier.  If this idea is counter to what you believe, then yes, we are in disagreement, but thanks for reading anyway!

We are not opposed to CCTV technology, though we must acknowledge what some of the data available has shown, which is that it can’t be said that CCTV has proven to always lessen crime.  

Sure, it gives us a record of things that happen, but without us humans to actually police every bit of footage, the footage itself may not be of much use.  

How many times has a city decided to try to implement a policy only to see it “fail”? It happens all too often.  

Regardless if you agree with the implementation of CCTV, or have always believed it to be either ineffective, or simply a way for “Big Brother” to oversee us all, all that is besides the point.

If it can be proved more or less objectively that CCTV cameras do their part to lessen crime in a given area, you have to admit that on some level they are providing society with a greater good.  

However, if all you can prove is that a billion dollars was spent and that 30 000 CCTV cameras now monitor the streets, then you must admit that these stats alone are not enough to warrant even more of these cameras.  

To end where we began, CCTV cameras may have seen their rise and fall, but they are still with us, and like any effort that has been put forth, whether it be a failed attempt or a grand success, it is what we can learn from it all that will decide if ultimately we are truly moving forward as a society, or simply going in circles.  

Thanks again for reading!

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Lansing Michael

Lansing Michael

Michael Lansing has been living for the past 25 years on the Bruce Peninsula, which is located in Southwestern Ontario, where he owns a 50 acre art and garden park, where people come up to explore "the bush". Featuring workshops of many kinds, Michael has an affinity for home security and spends his free time examining locks and security testing various products that add security to the home. He also has a large scale security system guarding his property, as well as his two dogs Shanna and Axe. He also sculpts in iron works, and if you're traveling north to Tobermory, you may notice some of his works along the side of the highway there.