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Who Uses Spy Equipment In The UK?

Adrian Mudd   November 26, 2015

The phrase “Big Brother society” is often mentioned when discussing modern Britain, but is the title fair? With research estimating that we are each caught on camera 300 times every day, you might think so. But why are there so many cameras littering our streets and properties, and who is operating them?

1. Shop Owners

The most likely place to have your presence captured on camera is on your local high street. Shopping streets up and down the country are lined with CCTV cameras on lampposts, buildings and other vantage points. You might be surprised to learn that the vast majority of these are owned and operated not by the government, but by private companies.

Because of this, it is difficult to gain exact figures regarding just how many of these cameras there are in the UK. Recent research suggests the figure may be around 1.85 million, with just 52,000 of these being operated by local government. So what’s the benefit of all this surveillance? Predominantly, CCTV on the high street is used for crime prevention or detection.

Cameras trained on the doors of shops can help identify shoplifters as they exit the store. If a member of the public is the victim of pick-pocketing or a bag-snatch, a trawl of CCTV footage may be able to identify the perpetrator. CCTV cameras, whether real or decoy, are also placed in a preventative capacity as it is hoped that the mere presence of the surveillance device may be enough to deter criminals from breaking the law in the first place.

CCTV surveillance UK

2. Police Force

Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) is an effective and important method of surveillance in the UK. As vehicles pass an ANPR camera (usually positioned on bridges over the motorway), the number plate is read and checked instantly against a database containing vehicles of interest to the police. This information tells the police the location and direction of travel of those who may have committed serious criminal offences.

Officers can then intercept the vehicle, question the driver, and check for evidence. ANPR has proved effective in locating stolen vehicles and uninsured drivers and has even been used to help fight terrorism and organised crime offences. It quickly and easily alerts officers to the location of a vehicle of interest while allowing law-abiding citizens to go about their business unaffected.

3. Homeowners

Although overall crime levels in the UK have been on a downward trend for some time, offences such as domestic burglary and theft from the vehicle remain stubbornly high. With this is mind, it is unsurprising that many homeowners are resorting to motion-activated lights, security cameras, and other spy equipment to keep their homes and belongings safe.

Security cameras for use in the home are now widely available online and in electronics shops, and the steady march of technological progress means they are improving in quality all the time. The cameras themselves are becoming smaller and more discreet, meaning they can be easily hidden in shrubs, fascias, or anywhere else they may catch a glimpse of the person illegally entering your home.

4. Healthcare Providers

Surveillance systems are becoming increasingly prevalent in health or social care situations, such as in care homes or residential homes where elderly or vulnerable individuals may be living. CCTV can be used to increase the safety and security of those living on the premises, but can also be used if relatives fear abuse or neglect may be taking place. Recent high profile cases of neglect or mistreatment in care homes led to more individuals installing covert CCTV to monitor the treatment of their loved ones. In cases such as this, it is essential to gain the consent of the individual in question before installing the cameras.

5. Couples

Even in the happiest relationships there may come a time when the suspicious behaviour of a partner begins to raise some uncomfortable questions. Hidden cameras or other spy equipment around the home is one way of getting answers without ruining your relationship if there is an innocent explanation. Individuals can buy cameras hidden in air fresheners and other household items for this purpose.

6. Government Security Services

Staff theft

There are currently more than 500 public authorities who have been granted the use of surveillance by or on behalf of the UK government. These range from small district councils to large national organisations such as the Department for Work and Pensions but are closely inspected to ensure no foul play. While it’s understandable that certain activities need to be monitored for the safety of the country, a lot of people find it uncomfortable to know they are being watched. The Office of Surveillance Commissioners is a non-departmental UK public body responsible for overseeing the use of covert surveillance and each year publishes a report on its findings.

7. Businesses

It is estimated that every year, hundreds of thousands of pounds are lost as a result of employee theft, ranging from minor misdemeanours to high-level fraud. With hidden cameras, business owners can watch their employees without detection, giving them greater peace of mind with ultimate and complete safety and business surveillance. Today’s security cameras are equipped with high-quality video capture and audio too. These clear images, coupled with high-quality sound, make them highly successful at recording any activities in the workplace

8. Parents

Bringing a child into the world is one of the most beautiful but often terrifying things to do. Leaving your child in the care of someone you don’t know inside and out can be a daunting prospect and some parents use ‘nanny cameras’ for peace of mind as their childminder gets to work. Most are wireless and can be hidden in almost any type of household item.

9. Relatives

While healthcare providers in the UK are, on the whole, very trustworthy and have sufficient surveillance installed on their property, sometimes relatives of those in care homes or hospices like to be able to see the footage for themselves. Like the ‘nanny cam’, these often are just to soothe any suspicions and are easily concealed in everyday items.

Communications data statistics

10. Holidaymakers

Rising in popularity thanks to TV programmes such as ‘The Secret Tourist’ and ‘Package Holiday Undercover’, tourists are becoming more likely to ‘go undercover’ to prove their package holiday complaints. Appalling health and safety, dodgy excursions and dubious medical centres abroad can all be picked up on body-worn or portable spy cameras. If you’re worried about hotel workers cleaning your room, it may be worth taking a camera hidden inside an a phone dock; such as our Desktop Camera Charger.

But people aren’t taking their spyware gadgets abroad just to spy. Items like video glasses and body-worn cameras are perfect for capturing holiday activities like water skiing, bungee-jumps and paragliding.

11. Animal Lovers

From checking whether there are mice running around your home at night to tracking deer in the woods, outdoor spy cameras are perfect for discreetly observing wildlife in their natural habitat. Bird boxes and trail cameras are also very popular for this type of surveillance.

Bird watchers UK

12. Mystery Shoppers

Approximately 50,000 mystery shopping trips are carried out each month in the UK, and the demand for professional undercover consumers is growing. Some just make notes on a notepad, but others have listening devices installed on their phones and video mystery shoppers, who film visits with a hidden camera planted in a handbag, can make around £300 per day.

View mystery shopper equipment.

13. Undercover Reporters

Pulling off an undercover investigation is no mean feat, especially when carried out by an untrained professional. Journalists, more well-known for their clever use of the English language, sometimes go above and beyond expectations to get a big scoop. A recent example of this when BBC Panorama’s Joe Casey spent five weeks undercover filming at private care hospital. The horrific footage captured led to 11 members of staff being arrested and six put in prison.

14. Mystery Diners

Mystery diners operate much under the same guise as a mystery shopper, except they get free food! Undercover restaurant reviewers often source their feedback from notes taken after dinner, but to get live-action footage undetected they fix tiny hidden cameras to button holes, coats or handbags.

Sportspeople surveillance UK15. Sportspeople

The more active ones among us may like to remember our sporting achievements with live video footage. Body-worn cameras can be secured to a torso during an iconic marathon run or camera’s hidden in a helmet can capture incredible footage of a snowboarder flying down the slopes.

16. Students

The way that universities work in the UK, often you’ll end up living with a group of strangers that you’ve never met before. It’s quite common for small items such as food and toiletries to go missing as housemates get to grips with the ground rules. It could be a good idea to install a hidden camera to ensure nothing bigger goes missing.

In student news from the other side of the world, in 2014 a group of Chinese students were found to be using hidden camera glasses, spy camera pens and small receivers to cheat on their college entrance exams. Not that we’d recommend that, of course.

17. Wannabe 007s

James Bond is one of the most legendary spies in British history, but it’s important to remember that he is a fictional character. With lookalike agencies dedicated to 007 and Bond events popping up across the country, it’s not surprising that some people fancy themselves as a bit of a spy themselves. Voice recorder spy pens, hidden camera watches and backpack cameras are all commonplace for the wannabe Bond.

18. Taxi DriversBlack cab cameras UK

The famed black cabs of London are a British institution in their own right yet some people don’t show them the respect they deserve. To preserve the state of their vehicles, many taxi drivers install hidden cameras and listening devices around the seats. So next time you’re in the mood to drop your litter in the back of a cab, just remember that you’re on camera!

19. Car Owners

There are nearly 32 million cars on the road in the UK, and some of these are shared between family members or housemates. Vehicle trackers can help determine whether your partner, sibling, child or friend is taking your car where they say they are. SatNav systems are becoming more and more popular, making GPS vehicle trackers even easier to conceal.

20. Celebrities

The rich and famous people of the world are also those who find themselves most at risk of being targeted. The huge amount of tabloid newspapers, magazines and gossip websites mean we know a lot about the people that we watch on TV – so it’s unsurprising that they employ extensive surveillance systems. CCTV cameras dotted around their plush homes is probably a necessity in this day and age.

21. Fraud Investigators

The job of a fraud investigator can be fascinating. If it’s thought that someone is wrongfully claiming insurance or compensation, it’s the work of an investigator to prove this. Sometimes this can be done by analysing databases but going undercover to perform surveillance work is not uncommon. Hidden cameras and recording devices can reveal if the claimant is fraudulent or not.

22. Army

It’s the job of the British Army to keep details of their covert operations under wraps, but you can bet that they are absolute experts in the art of surveillance. Computer monitoring, vehicle tracking and hidden cameras all allow the Great British military to keep our country safe.

23. Local Council

Local councils in the UK are responsible for allocating monetary benefits for those who either can’t work through illness or are currently job seeking. However, ‘benefits cheats’ – those who take the money but aren’t eligible for it – are a big problem. The Department for Work and Pensions’ latest advertising campaign ‘Do the right thing‘ tackles this, and fully admits to using hidden cameras and undercover surveillance to catch the cheats.

Cyclist GPS service UK24. Cyclists

An average road bike these days can cost close to £1,000 so cyclists would be forgiven for wanting to keep their two-wheeled steed in check. Hidden GPS systems are the latest piece of surveillance kit on the bike market, that not only record your own cycle rides but also make sure that it stays where it should throughout the day. You can hide them in your seat post and track your bike in real time from your phone.


In the world of spy equipment and surveillance gadgets, it’s inevitable that products may fall into the wrong hands. Other users of surveillance that we don’t knowingly supply to could include bank robbers, stalkers and identity thieves.

The estimated figure of 1.85 million CCTV cameras in the UK initially sounds startling, but there is little if any evidence that this footage is ever used for anything other than crime prevention or protecting innocent citizens. On the whole, surveillance plays a significant role in keeping us safe, bringing offenders to justice, and can even give peace of mind in a relationship. The Big Brother society is not as menacing as it sounds.