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ROSS CLARK: I used to hate CCTV cameras, but now I know they are vital

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As someone who once wrote a book condemning the surveillance society, I have to admit that Wayne Couzens’ story is a worthwhile read.

Without CCTV surveillance, this sadistic killer might never have been caught — or nearly as quickly — for the despicable kidnapping, rape, and murder of Sarah Everard earlier this year.

Officers were able to track this monster’s movements thanks to hours of “dashcam” footage of cars and buses, footage of shops and cafes, and even new doorbell cameras attached to people’s homes.

Combined with other technology such as license plate recognition software and mobile phone ‘triangulation’, it provided an unambiguous case.

Without it, Couzens might have pleaded not guilty and instead put Sarah’s family on the additional torment of a lengthy trial.

Without CCTV, Wayne Couzens might never have been caught for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Sarah Everard. Pictured: Couzens faked his arrest to lure Sarah Everard into his car

Lord Justice Fulford, who yesterday sentenced 48-year-old Couzens to spend the rest of his life in prison, said: “The compelling CCTV compilation, the product of 1800 hours of footage, along with the cell site [mobile phone] evidence, revealed with absolute clarity the gist of what had happened.”

And Sarah’s case isn’t the only one where such images can be vital. According to reports, CCTV footage shows last month’s deadly attack on Sabina Nessa, 28, as well as her movements through the South East London park where her body was found.

In light of the many such crimes solved thanks to CCTV, fewer people today are complaining that surveillance cameras are a threat to our freedom. That battle is long lost.

The same is true, I believe, for the DNA database, which has solved several cold case murders in recent years.

The database didn’t even exist when Christopher Hampton murdered 17-year-old Melanie Road in Bath in 1984, and for years he must have thought he got away with the crime. But five years ago, he was sentenced to life in prison after DNA evidence linked him to the crime scene.

Britain now has an estimated 4-6 million CCTV cameras. They do important work, and without them police work would be delayed for years and murderers and rapists would be harder to catch.

Without CCTV, Couzens might have pleaded not guilty and instead inflicted the added torment of a lengthy trial on Sarah's family.  In the photo: Sarah Everard

Without CCTV, Couzens might have pleaded not guilty and instead inflicted the added torment of a lengthy trial on Sarah’s family. In the photo: Sarah Everard

Lord Justice Fulford yesterday sentenced Couzens to spend the rest of his life in prison, saying the CCTV footage

Lord Justice Fulford yesterday sentenced Couzens to spend the rest of his life in prison, saying the CCTV footage “revealed with absolute clarity the essence of what had happened”.

So yes, my thinking on this topic has evolved since I wrote my 2007 book The Road to Southend Pier: One Man’s Fight Against the Surveillance Society. For starters, the technology has improved tremendously.

My biggest annoyance at the time – I was never so concerned about people having their ‘privacy’ violated when caught on camera in a public place – was that police officers and security guards were being dumped in favor of CCTV cameras that don’t even work.

At the time, four of the five CCTV images requested by the police and courts were found to be useless because they were too blurry, the cameras pointed the wrong way, the film was out or for some other reason.

The truth is that there are still problems in this regard – not least those identified this week by the Mail’s vigorous investigation into ‘smart’ highways.

This paper’s undercover reporter found that CCTV cameras designed to ensure the safety of motorists stranded on these highways often either failed, pointed the wrong way, or were hidden.

But these are side issues. And while I’m happy with the technology that allowed the police to catch Couzens so quickly, I’m not ready to cheer the surveillance company three times: two is enough.

I still have deep doubts about how many of these cameras are being used.

Catching a murderer and rapist is one thing. But as I warned in my 2007 book, powerful surveillance techniques are still used far too freely to impose automatic fines for the most minor offences.

For every Wayne Couzens, hundreds of thousands of motorists are fined up to £160 for entering a bus lane, often for just a few metres.

And Sarah's case isn't the only one where such images can be vital.  According to reports, CCTV footage shows last month's deadly attack on Sabina Nessa (pictured), 28

And Sarah’s case isn’t the only one where such images can be vital. According to reports, CCTV footage shows last month’s deadly attack on Sabina Nessa (pictured), 28

A London council, meanwhile, conducted a trial that used dog feces DNA for fine owners whose animals had soiled public places. Other councils have expressed a desire to use a national canine DNA database for the same.

This strikes me as a horrific misuse of DNA technology.

I accept that CCTV, the DNA database, and so on, are here to stay, but what we need – and have never had – is a debate about the limits of their use.

Without clear rules, law enforcement becomes skewed: police and community enforcement officers tend to focus on the easiest offenses to resolve, rather than the most serious.

So let’s have CCTV cameras, but prohibit the use of images for fines for minor violations.

As for the DNA database, I now think we should put everyone on it at birth (not just those who are questioned by the police, as is happening now), but at the same time pass a law limiting its use for certain purposes, such as investigating the most serious crimes.

Hardened criminals are fair game to any surveillance — but using cameras to fine otherwise law-abiding people for trivial rule violations is horribly over the top.

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