They Are Watching You—and Everything Else on the Planet

Technology and our increasing demand for security have put us all under surveillance. Is privacy becoming just a memory?

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A high-definition camera tracks a hired subject along a street in Islington, a borough in Greater London.

This story appears in the February 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

ABOUT 10:30 ON a Saturday morning in the north London borough of Islington, two men on mopeds race down the shopping corridor of Upper Street. Sheathed in helmets, gloves, and jackets, they look more like manic video game figures than humans. They weave through traffic and around double-decker buses at kamikaze velocity. Motorists flinch at their approach. The bikers pop wheelies and execute speedy figure eights along the busy street. Still, something more purposeful than joyriding would seem to be on their minds.

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After three or four minutes, they abruptly turn off Upper and onto a quiet and leafy residential avenue. They hop the curb and cut their engines. Dismounting on the sidewalk, their helmets still on, they fall into a lengthy conversation. Their dialogue is known only to them. But there is something the men themselves likely don’t know: About a mile away, from a windowless room, two other men are watching them.

“They’re moving,” Sal says to Eric.

The two men sit 10 feet apart, behind a long console in Islington’s closed-circuit television (CCTV) control room, painted and carpeted in gray, with no adornments. Sal is middle-aged, while Eric is decades younger. Both wear casual office attire. No small talk passes between them. As the two bikers take off, Sal types away at his computer keyboard, prompting Camera 10 to appear on his screen. And there they are again, flying down Upper Street. As they disappear from Sal’s view, Eric quickly locates them on Camera 163. With a joystick, he zooms the camera onto the moped pulling up the rear until its license plate is legible.

Sal radios the police station. “We have two suspicious mopeds doing wheelies on Upper Street.”

Picture of operators monitor closed-circuit television system in Islington’s control room.

Two closed-circuit television system operators monitor Islington’s control room, where they can watch images from the borough’s extensive camera network. London’s video surveillance helped solve the deadly 2005 terrorist bombings, which killed 52 people.

Facing the men is an immense display with 16 screens. It conveys live images from Islington’s network of 180 CCTV cameras. By visible evidence, this Saturday morning is a comparatively placid one. Earlier in the week a young man had died after being stabbed in a flat, and from the overpass at Archway Road, darkly referred to as “suicide bridge,” another man had jumped to his death. Later today in Finsbury Park, the cameras would spend hours panning across 35,000 festivalgoers in search of pickpockets, drunken brawlers, and other assorted agents of petty mischief.

For the moment, however, the bikers are the only action in Islington. And though Sal and Eric—who have been doing this work for 15 and four years, respectively—pursue their quarry from one camera to the next with humdrum efficiency, I can almost see their blood quicken. For what we have here, they believe, are two members of gangs that have been plaguing Islington for more than a year. They snatch smartphones from pedestrians, then sell the items on the black market. It happens about 50 times a week in the borough of nearly 233,000 residents.

And yet to the uninitiated, the prospect of catching the bikers in an illegal act can feel almost irrelevant. Instead, I’m captivated by the basic spectacle of two people who appear to have no idea they’re being watched everywhere they go. Perhaps they’re criminals. Perhaps they’re sociopaths. Our surveillance is inconclusive on these matters. The only thing that’s certain is that we see them but they don’t see us. Like a deer framed in a hunting riflescope, the bikers display no signs of their vulnerability. In this way they are profoundly exposed.

That evening a few miles away, I’m sitting in a mobile trailer in southwest London, just down the street from the Vauxhall Underground Station. Beside me is an affable young man who goes by the name of Haz. Several closed-circuit screens are arrayed in front of us, displaying images provided by 10 cameras aimed at two nearby nightclubs.

CITY SURVEILLANCE

London authorities were early adopters of widespread closed-circuit television (CCTV)

surveillance after the city was targeted by terrorists using truck bombs in the early 1990s.

From 2012 to 2015 the city saw a 72 percent increase in cameras, making up one-third

of the U.K.’s cameras overall. Today Londoners are some of the most closely watched

city dwellers in the world; as one example, the borough of Islington, just north of central

London, monitors 180 cameras.

UNITED

KINGDOM

IRELAND

London

to Finsbury Park

Emirates

Stadium

ISLINGTON

ISLINGTON

CCTV density

in Greater London

Number of cameras

per square mile

4 mi

4 km

More than 20

0.5 mi

10-20

0.5 km

CCTV data for London and Islington are from 2015 and 2017, respectively. Islington map shows only fixed camera locations.

Fewer than 10

CCTV camera location

No data

Underground station