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Video: Your chance to be Big Brother as CCTV monitoring website comes to Norfolk

PUBLISHED: 12:00 04 March 2011 | UPDATED: 17:04 04 March 2011

Members of the public will be asked to monitor CCTV footage

Members of the public will be asked to monitor CCTV footage

©Archant Photographic 2010

Shoppers at three Norfolk shops could unwittingly find CCTV footage of themselves being screened all over the world as part of a bizarre internet scheme aimed at deterring criminals.

Crime correspondent Ben Kendall tried out the Internet Eyes site.

Whether it’s watching endless episodes of The Wire, scanning police appeals for suspect descriptions which might fit my friends or taking a job which involves spending far more time than is healthy hanging around Norfolk’s courts, I’ve always fancied myself as something of a detective.

So the website Internet Eyes seemed to present the perfect opportunity to quench my thirst for crime fighting – and win £1,000 in the process.

Then came the first disappointment. There is no way of knowing which store you’re viewing footage from and, for data protection reasons, you are not allowed to view cameras within a set range of your postcode: no chance of spying on the neighbours.

Unperturbed I eagerly logged on and made myself comfy, setting up views from two different cameras to run on my screen. Then I waited. And waited.

The first bit of action saw a greyed haired woman buy what looked a lot like a pint of milk. My pulse began to race and I hovered my mouse over the “alert” button, used to highlight suspicious activity, as she headed towards the door, stopping only at the last minute to hand over some change to the shopkeeper. Not a master criminal on this occasion, but at least I was watching to make sure.

For the next 10 minutes nothing happened so I went to make a cup of tea. I was back just in time to see a flurry of activity: two young people, one wearing a baseball cap, had entered and were loitering menacingly around the magazine rack.

One of them – not the cap wearer – picked up a copy of what might have been FHM, flicked through it and returned it to the shelf. They left without making a purchase.

To prevent abuse each viewer is limited to making five alerts each month so you have to use them wisely. Going by my experience, it would take a long time to see anything interesting enough to justify so many alerts.

A lot of people will sign up for the novelty value – but only the most devoted, or least busy, among us are likely to return to the site time and again.

Three Budgens stores have become the first in the county to sign up to the new Internet Eyes CCTV website, in which viewers are challenged to watch footage from the stores and look out for criminals.

The CCTV footage from the shops, which are in Brundall, Cromer, and Prince of Wales Road, in Norwich, will be streamed to subscribers all over the world, with the promise of cash prizes of up to £1,000 for those who help to catch the most criminals.

Budgens bosses have signed up to the website despite fears being raised that it breaches the privacy of shoppers – who could be being watched without even knowing it.

Jinx Hundal, who owns the three Budgens stores and has signed up for a six-month trial, said he heard about the site from a friend and had decided to use it in a bid to deter shoplifters who were becom-ing more and more of a problem.

He said: “We have two options: to pay a considerable amount of money to employ a security guard; or have someone constantly monitoring the CCTV, which is what Internet Eyes does.

“I know of other fellow retailers who are waiting to see how I get on and, if it works, they are quite keen to get involved as well.”

Plans for the site were first touted in 2009, but the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) watchdog delayed the launch of the service until October last year while they carried out an investigation amid complaints about people’s privacy rights being breached.

But the site is now up and running after the ICO said the company could continue with the launch, but asked for certain restrictions to be included, namely that subscribers had to be over 18 and that they should pay a fee to join – from £1.99 a month to £12.99 for a year.

So far, 34 businesses across the UK and Canada have signed up and the first in Norfolk went live this week at the three Budgens stores.

The site, which currently has 3,500 viewers, works by a digital receiver being connected to existing CCTV recorders in stores. The images from the digital recorder are then streamed back to the Internet Eyes website, which can be logged into and stores viewed 24 hours a day.

Businesses are charged £60 a month for a four-camera system to be installed and signs are also put on display in stores warning people they are being monitored remotely.

Anyone from the UK, European Union, Canada and Argentina can register to use the site.

Each viewer can monitor up to four cameras at a time; the stores and business they will watch are selected randomly by the computer and will not be within the same postcode area as the viewer lives.

The images are also refreshed on the computer every 20 minutes to prevent viewers from working out where the business or shop is.

Last night, Norfolk Police said it would be prepared to use footage gained from the website in criminal cases.

A spokesman said: “The use of CCTV evidence has been invaluable in bringing many investigations to a successful conclusion and securing convictions, and if a crime is brought to our attention, it will be investigated accordingly.

“Such a website could assist us in bringing people to justice, however, until we have had the opportunity to assess the scheme first hand, we are unable to comment more specifically.”

The site was set up by Dawlish businessman Tony Morgan, who says the aim is to give local businesses protection against petty criminals and act as a deterrent.

He said the viewers on the site usually consisted of people who were at home for long periods of time, such as disabled or elderly people or mothers with young children, and who wanted to feel they were giving something back to the community.

He also said they had gone to great lengths to ensure there was no misuse of the images. He added: “We have put everything in place to make sure its not abused or used maliciously; it bothers me that people think it could be used maliciously.”

The measures include making sure everyone who registers to use the site also agrees to have a check run on them by an independent company.

Viewers collect points by watching the cameras, which show CCTV images in real-time, and click a button every time they see something suspicious taking place.

An SMS or text message, along with a still image of the alleged crime, is sent to the store or business. They can then decide whether or not to take action.

The camera controller will send a feedback email back to the viewer indicating whether a crime has taken place.

When each viewer signs up, they get five alerts a month to use. If they make too many negative alerts, they can be made to leave the site.

Viewers are awarded one point for spotting a suspected crime and three points if they see someone committing an actual crime, and also lose points if the camera operator rules that the alert was not a crime.

At the end of the month, a league table is drawn up and the viewers with the most points are awarded monetary prizes.

Last month, 29 awards of between £10-£250 were given out.

So far, altogether there have been 297 positive alerts and more than 4,000 ‘suspicious’ alerts.

Max Patey, commercial director of Internet Eyes, said: “We have worked with the ICO very closely about the security and we have recently had a review with them and they say they are happy with what we have in place.

“This is not about state surveillance’ it is a neighbourhood watch scheme for the 21st century.”

Mr Patey admitted there would be people who believed there was too much surveillance in Britain, but added: “If you talk to people who surveillance has aided, then they are going to have a very different opinion.

“People are rewarded, but there is also the moral and social element they get from helping to catch shoplifters and doing something for the community.”

When the website launched, civil rights campaigners condemned it, saying there was no control over what could happen to the images.

Charles Farrier, from the No CCTV campaigning group, told the EDP: “It is the fact you have no idea who is watching you or what they are doing with the images.

“It is not acceptable that someone goes into a store to buy milk and then that image is shared around the world.”

He said they were still in the process of putting complaints into the ICO about the issue.

Kathryn Hirst a partner at Hansells Solicitors, based in Norwich, which specialises in data protection issues, said; “The ICO have also said they will continue to monitor Internet Eyes and investigate any complaints.

“I think it is interesting; it is a case of watch this space.”

Julian Foster, chairman of the Central Norwich Citizens’ Forum, which covers the Prince of Wales Road area, said: “I am a great believer in and support the CCTV that is available in Norwich because it is run by the city council and is protected by the necessary legislation, and the only people intended to see it, other than the city council, are police officers.

“I am totally opposed to anybody else seeing it; it is infringing on the lives of individual citizens.”

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb, said: “It is a bizarre and novel idea, but I am slightly uneasy about the implications of this and how to make sure it is not abused by individuals and used for their agenda.

“I understand Budgens have got to ensure they keep control of their stock, but contracting out to the public the role of store detective does raise concerns.”

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