Where Big Brother Watches and Talks to You

Britain stands guard with more than 4 million security cameras, or CCTVs, as they call them over here. That's one for every 14 people in the country. The British are among the most-watched people on earth.

And now one town in the north of England has taken CCTV technology a step further.

The monitors in Middlesbrough's CCTV control room show a drunk put back a traffic cone, a vandal replace a strip light he had pulled off the roof of a pizza joint, and a smoker pick up his cigarette butt from the sidewalk.

Why did they correct their infractions? The operator in the control room spotted their actions, and a disembodied voice coming from a speaker attached to a CCTV camera stopped the offenders in their tracks. It seems to work.

Disembodied but Polite

I borrowed a bicycle and took a ride down a pedestrian street. Suddenly a slightly tinny voice rang out above me. "Can the gentleman in the brown jacket on the bike please dismount?"

I did, and the voice returned. "Thank you," it said.

The operators are very courteous. But it is shocking to be singled out and reprimanded by a voice that seems to come out of nowhere. People standing around laughed at me. The voice basically shamed me into getting off my bike.

"I don't think that form of public humiliation to get social control is the best form possible," said Clive Norris, a sociology professor at Sheffield University, and one of the country's leading CCTV critics.

But he's in an ivory tower, so to speak, and the self-described "man on the front line" in the fight against anti-social behavior is Ray Mallon, the mayor of Middlesbrough. He's a former cop -- nicknamed "Robocop" during his time on the force.

"I don't speak Italian and I don't speak Urdu," he said cryptically. "But I speak crime reduction fluently, because I've been doing it for a long time."

Mallon has attached speakers to some of the 144 cameras in his town. He calls these "intervention tools."

"Sometimes all you have to do is intervene and say to someone, 'Don't do that,'" he said.

There's a speaker to relay the orders but no microphone to pick up the replies. "This is a one-way street. The police command you. You can say nothing back," complained Norris. Although you can use hand gestures -- or worse.

Dare Anyone Complain?

"There's been too much spoken about human rights, too much about civil liberties of the wrongdoers," said Mallon. "I don't see any evidence of people in Middlesbrough complaining about this, other than a few hoodlums."

During our unscientific survey of the people of Middlesbrough, only one person complained. But she was no hoodlum. She was an elderly woman. "It's like Big Brother watching you," she said. "Not good," she added with a grimace.

Big Brother is, of course, the omnipresent voice in George Orwell's prophetic "1984." Thankfully, though, the CCTV operators in Middlesbrough work for something called the town council, not the Ministry of Truth.