Matt Hancock, camera carnage and wider public civil liberties

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Absent from the media and political frenzy is any sort of consideration of how the presence of the camera in Hancock’s office might reflect wider trends in British society.”


It was the camera wot done it. The Sun newspaper’s revelation via still images and video that Matt Hancock had broken social distancing rules with an aide triggered the Heath Secretary’s resignation. The expose also provoked both political and media speculation as to how the newspaper obtained the images from inside Hancock’s office and about the security implications of such a device in a ministerial office. It appears that the image came from an overt security camera, now removed by Hancock’s replacement, Sajid Javid; someone with access to it apparently supplied the images to the Sun.

Absent from the media and political frenzy is any sort of consideration of how the presence of the camera in Hancock’s office might reflect wider trends in British society. Namely, over the last few decades there been the expansion of surveillance capabilities through technology, both on the state and private levels. The UK now has one of the highest rates of per capita CCTV camera use in the world, coming in second only to China. The extent of surveillance is set to increase further through the filming of wide swathes of the British public thanks to the use of doorbell cameras that upload images to databases and which are currently generating major concerns for the implications for personal privacy on a global basis. The growth of the surveillance state has faced opposition from the wider public and non-state organizations. One example of the pushback has been the campaign against the use of facial recognition software by the Metropolitan Police. The criticism has focused on the evidence of the flaws of facial recognition software, including a racial bias and can lead to people being wrongly accused of crimes.

That racialized groups and others outside of centres of power within British society because of their faith or class or gender or sexuality or political beliefs or some combination of any of these should be on the receiving end of surveillance should not be surprising. Historically, the powerless and marginalized have been disproportionately targeted and/or suffered disparate consequences of surveillance, whether through technology or old-fashioned spying and infiltration. When it comes to surveillance, we are not all in it together.

That includes the usage of cameras and other surveillance technology through security policing. Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) technology of the type currently in use as part of the city of Birmingham’s new Clean Air Zone has an older history of deployment for security purposes in. In The Irish War, Tony Geraghty revealed that the British military had created a network of overt and covert cameras, codenamed “Glutton,” around Northern Ireland and at port cities in Great Britain to track the movement of the vehicles of terrorist suspects. Such ANPR technology was then deployed in Iraq to combat the insurgency that arose after the 2003 invasion before becoming ubiquitous back in the United Kingdom.

Closer to home, in 2007, the West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit first conceived of creating a network of overt and covert cameras around Sparkhill and Alum Rock, two predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods in Birmingham, in order to use ANPR to monitor the movement of residents. Codenamed Project Champion and portrayed as a crime control measure, the over 200 cameras were never activated before details of the plan became public. The ensuing backlash forced the police to dismantle the system.

The anger on the part of communities in Birmingham over covert filming brings us back to the fury of politicians because of the Hancock camera images. Those with political power create surveillance systems in which others are at the receiving end of intrusive technology.  The role of the camera in the Hancock scandal is a small inversion of that wider pattern. The British state and its political minders are untroubled when others suffer from the consequences of surveillance. Briefly, they have had a taste of their own medicine courtesy of a camera protruding from a ceiling.