'Robo-camera' threatens residents with prosecution
Camden council says sorry for installing flash-equipped camera with robotic American accent that takes indiscriminate pictures

Guardian | February 6, 2012
By Shiv Malik

A council has apologised for installing a "robo-camera" in a housing estate garden which indiscriminately takes pictures of anyone entering, residents included, before warning them they are in a restricted area and face prosecution.

London's Camden council said it recently installed the flash-equipped cameras in the borough to tackle antisocial behaviour but mistakenly activated the robotic voice message for one in the communal gardens of the Walker House estate, near Euston station.

In darkness the camera automatically takes a photo when triggered by a motion sensor. A voice then warns: "Stop! This is a restricted area and your photograph was just taken. We will use it to prosecute you. Leave the area now."

In a statement the council said the Walker House camera was installed in September last year in response to an increasing number of complaints of antisocial behaviour. All of its similar cameras, manufactured by Q Star Technologies, can issue the verbal message but this was normally deactivated, it added.

"All flash cameras have the capacity to deliver voice messages when activated but in this instance it appears that voice messages were inadvertently activated when the camera batteries were replaced four to five weeks ago," the statement said.

Camden said the cameras themselves were installed as "a temporary measure", and added: "We do not want to stop residents from enjoying their open spaces and communal areas and under no circumstances would we want voice messages to be used in areas where they may be disturbed. The voice messages will be deactivated as soon as possible."

One resident, Jim Jepps, who posted a video on YouTube on Saturday protesting against the council's actions, said he had noticed the camera before but believed the menacing, US-accented voice had been turned on over the weekend.

"There had been a flash camera there before, but they activated [the voice] on Saturday," he said.

Jepps, 41 who runs the website Big Smoke, and has lived on the estate for eight months, said that most residents were horrified by the camera: "This is not CCTV. This is something completely different. This is something that tells residents that they are in a restricted area and they have to move on.

"Anyone who goes to work at the normal time [when it is dark] would have had their picture taken. And anyone who goes outside basically after probably half-five will have had their picture taken... It's a residential area. Its our community garden. It's not appropriate.

"This is a measure that is meant to tackle antisocial behaviour but it is antisocial behaviour. If we had a man in the garden telling everybody to move on and that they were in a restricted area, we'd call the police because it is not on.

"I suspect the people who made this decision don't live anywhere near here. They certainly don't have a robot outside their house," adding that he welcomed Camden's decision to switch off the voice.

A local Labour councillor, Roger Robinson, who previously voiced support for the camera, said that there had been numerous reports of antisocial behaviour and drug dealing in the area.

"For God's sake, if someone doesn't want us to do it then okay, fine... We were doing it as an experiment to try and make sure these young men, these yobbos do not cause harassment to these residents. The idea is to do them [the residents] a favour, to do them a service. If they don't want it, fine."

The council said they had received "positive feedback from residents on the estate" and evidence from the cameras had led to a number of antisocial behaviour orders being obtained.