The surveillance and security system industry in the UK is worth more than £1 billion per year. And while there are obvious concerns about personal and data privacy that we naturally associate with surveillance, there’s another side to the sector that rarely gets talked about.
Manchester based surveillance consultancy Online Spy Shop makes and supplies a range of surveillance equipment for commercial and personal use. The potential applications are surprising. For example, people with elderly parents in care homes often approach the firm to discuss the best approach to monitoring the wellbeing of their parents without invading their privacy.
It’s a difficult thing to balance. Obviously everyone wants to know that their elderly loved ones are safe and being cared for and an obvious solution would be to install a spy camera, but is that the ethical thing to do?
Well, it depends. On the one hand, the staff won’t be aware that they’re subject to surveillance. But if abuse is suspected to be taking place, stopping that becomes a moral imperative above and beyond the privacy of staff at work. And provided all of the data gathered from the surveillance is handled in line with the Data Protection Act, there’s no legal issue.
There are other applications too, that aren’t immediately obvious but which do make total sense. For example, an increasing number of fly-tippers are facing justice due to peeved off residents who go to the trouble of catching them. Rural crime, a relatively unreported issue, needs the cooperation of private citizens, and that often requires the right tools, like motion-activated cameras.
Another common, but non-obvious application is the matter of health and safety at work, specifically with issues like food storage and pest control. The quickest way to get rid of mice and rats is to deny entry. But it’s hard to locate every possible nook and cranny in a building.
So most business and homeowners opt for the less effective and less humane method of poisoning and trapping. Motion-sensing night vision cameras solve this. By tracking movement and identifying the precise entry points the vermin are using - and where they’re going - business owners can block off the entry point and solve the problem for good.
But what has surveillance got to do with mental health? That’s a question that Steve Roberts, owner and boss of Online Spy Shop has found himself pondering a lot over the past year.
Steve explains: “Recently I came to realise how many people are using surveillance equipment in situations where mental health problems are potentially at play. I remember a customer who sincerely believed MI6 were tapping her phone line because she had split with her partner who was in the police force. She was highly distressed by this thought. We used a bug detector to put her mind at ease and show that the worst problem she had was a bit of static interference on her phone line. But no bugs.”
“Another example involved a concerned husband whose wife started to act out of character, sometimes behaving erratically towards him and who would take off in the car without explanation. The husband was clearly concerned for her welfare, but reluctant to directly confront the behaviour. So we briefly used a car tracker and a voice recorder to see what was happening. We discovered, in partnership with the husband, that his wife had stopped taking her medication, which was causing her behaviour to become increasingly erratic.”
While surveillance can never solve a mental health problem, it is one tool in a very large and evolving tool box that can help manage situations that could otherwise escalate.