Locations: Southern England and Northern Italy
Scene: Alessio Gila, a 37-year-old council administrator in Varese, studies a flickering image on his home computer screen. Something isn’t quite right. He looks again, waits two or three seconds to check if he was seeing correctly, then clicks a website alert button. 580 miles away, in Weston-Super-Mare, Chrissie Hatton receives a text message. There is a problem in her store, the Spar on Loxton Road. She acts decisively, calling the assistant manager to warn him that someone is acting suspiciously on the premises. The staff member spots a teenager who fits the description lurking near the refrigerators. He confronts him, asking whether he has anything on his person. The young man produces six cans of Relentless energy drink from his bag and a further two cans from his trousers. He is banned from the premises and told to spread the word that Internet Eyes operates within the store.
The G4S Retail Crime Index, released on 17th December, claimed that one in seven people would consider stealing from a retailer over Christmas. Another study, published a month earlier by the Centre for Retail Research, concluded that shoplifting will cost the UK £620 million over Christmas 2010.
Can anything be done to cut these numbers? Tony Morgan believes he has the answer, and all it requires is the watchful eyes of citizens from Colchester to Krakow.
Morgan, a restaurateur who sold up to buy a Dorset B&B, had a realisation: there are millions of surveillance cameras dotted throughout the UK but they are rarely watched by anyone. And when they are used, it is usually to try and solve rather than prevent a crime. So Morgan thought: why not get people watching them all the time? His plan was to unlock this footage and stream it live over the internet with people winning cash prizes for spotting shoplifters. The name came to him at the same time: Internet Eyes.
After figuring out the technical logistics, Morgan went looking for viewers. This happened faster than he anticipated. He got 1.2 million hits on his fledgling website almost overnight following an interview with the Stratford Herald in September 2009, in which he outlined the basics of his scheme. Every tabloid in the country picked up on the story and 7,500 people registered an interest in one weekend.
“What is technology there for if it isn’t to stop crime? Why not use it?”
But before he could utilise his army of eyes he had to secure the green light from the Information Commissioner’s Office. The ICO approved a pilot scheme on the proviso that subscribers would be aged 18-plus. It also suggested he charge a fee to prevent people abusing the scheme – which Morgan has set at £1.99 per month or £12.99 for a whole year. Morgan then levied a £75 a month fee to participating shops and assigned them with surveillants. If these viewers see anything suspicious, they hit an alert button which sends a text message to the shopkeeper who can decide how to respond to the warning. Surveillants get three points for correctly spotting a criminal activity and the surveillant with the most points can win up to £1,000 at the end of the month. So far the winners have included participants in Latvia and France.
By the time the site was officially launched in October 2010, it already had 3,000 people and 30 stores signed up. Voila! A network of crime fighters. Although not one without controversy: some people see the users of Internet Eyes as snoops.
Tony Morgan prefers to think of it as a communal effort to tackle crime. “I’ve had a lot of emails from people saying they’ve seen shoplifters in action but were frightened to say anything,” he says. “Now they feel they can help. It’s all part of the Big Society in action – everyone helping everyone else”. Morgan claims that the new crime studies underlines the need for action. “You get half a dozen school kids covering each other while they each pinch a Mars bar,” he says. “That doesn’t sound a lot but it all adds up. You can’t walk into a bank and just take money off the shelf so why should you be able to do it in a shop?”
Ask him whether he worries about it becoming a Big Brother-style scheme in which innocent people are continually monitored and his answer is simple. “I’ve come up against a few libertarians who object to CCTV cameras. But my answer is this: the small shopkeeper has the right to make a living.”
He also dismisses claims that it encourages voyeurism. Shops are randomly allocated for starters, and when an incident is reported the surveillant immediately gets a blue screen to prevent them from seeing what happens next.
Internet Eyes might be in its infancy but Morgan predicts a big – and potentially lucrative – future. He’s already looking at shops in Canada – the UK and Canada use a compatible data system – and, in theory, it could also be rolled out to high street cameras. “Who knows where it will lead to,” he says. “There’s an awful lot of trouble on our streets, much of it that isn’t even reported. What is technology there for if it isn’t to stop crime? Why not use it?”
Charles Farrier from No-CCTV.org could name a few reasons. “We’ve argued that Internet Eye is breaking the Data Protection Act on a number of issues,” he tells us. “We hope the Information Commissions Office will close Internet Eye down on that basis, but it depends on whether it has the stomach for that fight. The ICO representative says it’s his opinion that the act isn’t being broken, but that’s just his view – they are only a watchdog.”
When asked about the necessity of tackling shoplifting, as well as protecting data he is scathing in his response. “There is no necessity. We are talking about the Data Protection Act. There is no necessity in British law to protect private property in this way. That’s a facetious comment and a ridiculous claim to make.”
And then he turns the tables. “Do you understand what the definition of shoplifting is? It is leaving a shop without paying for goods. If you put something in your pocket when you’re in a shop you haven’t committed an offence. That may be an uncomfortable thing to believe, but it is the law.”
“It’s a worrying trend when we’re working towards a citizen spy network”
But if surveillants aren’t actually witnessing a prosecutable offense taking place, won’t shopkeepers at least be informed as to who they should watch out for next time? “You would be wrongly accusing them,” Farrier replies. “If someone makes off with something but you can’t find the goods on them then you can’t prosecute. I agree there is a massive problem with shoplifting, but that is the law.”
Farrier is also quick to dismiss the argument that Internet Eyes helps prevent crime because people know they are being watched. “I’ve heard people say they like the scheme because it frightens children into behaving. It’s a sad indictment of our society if we want to scare them into obedience rather than educating them on why shoplifting is wrong.”
Would he be able to sell that argument to a shopkeeper who is losing his livelihood to children stealing from his shop? “I find that difficult to believe that a single shopkeeper in this country is losing his livelihood to children stealing Mars bars,” he replies somewhat testily. “Sensible people in the business of crime prevention say there are far better ways to tackle the problem. The best method is talking to your customers. If you see someone behaving suspiciously you say, ‘Excuse me, can I help?’”
He also says the scheme could lead to far wider abuses. “You can already find Internet Eyes videos that have been leaked on YouTube. That means the system is open to massive abuse. People will be able to see a celebrity going into a shop and that’s what they’re going to want to watch. They will be able to capture that, put it on the internet and have fun with it.”
What sort of fun would they have with a celebrity walking into a shop?
“I don’t care what fun they have. It’s a gross breach of personal privacy.”
But people can do that anyway with camera phones…
“That’s also a gross breach of privacy.”
How can you stop it?
“We need to educate people so they understand the law. They need to understand that people have a right to go about their daily business and not expect images to be broadcast on the internet. And asking untrained members of the public to spy on people with the potential for those images to be leaked is a step too far.”
Farrier also worries that the scheme has the potential to be the thin end of the wedge. “Several local authorities have asked volunteers to look at cameras. In Shoreditch, London, there was a scheme where people could watch CCTV cameras from their homes. It’s a worrying trend when we’re working towards a citizen spy network.”
Tony Morgan, unsurprisingly, has a different opinion. “I’m pleased as punch this system is doing exactly what I set out to do – tackle shoplifting. The only ones suffering are the shoplifters and it’s about time they did, isn’t it?”
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