`Caught In The Act' In Britain Means Millions May See You

LONDON - Britain bristles with video-surveillance cameras - more per capita, according to some estimates, than any other country. They scrutinize parking garages, housing developments, department stores and offices, all in the interest of fighting crime.

They also watch couples intertwined in office stockrooms, elevators and cars; women undressing in department-store changing rooms; and husbands and wives in domestic squabbles.

Such scenes, which once titillated only security officers, have now arrived in video stores everywhere, for the viewing pleasure of anyone over 18 willing to spend roughly $15.

For those who prefer violence to sex, the two tapes on the market also feature, among other things, an old man getting beaten up in a store robbery, drug dealers bashing each other with pipes and a selection of "ram raids," in which thieves break into shops by ramming a car through the entrance.

The tapes' producers have purchased the footage from insurance companies, security firms and local governmental authorities, according to James Hunt, the chief "researcher" for one production, "Caught in the Act."

Hunt says their point is to show "the dark side of surveillance systems" - and also, by the way, to make money.

The videos - the other is titled "Really Caught in the Act" - have prompted modest outrage (but no laws) in Parliament and vigorous protests from Britain's main civil-liberties organization, which is pushing for a law that would restrict the use and distribution of footage from closed-circuit television, referred to here as CCTV.

"Anyone can do this," said Duncan Lustig-Prean, a spokesman for the civil-liberties group Liberty. "There are no controls at all."

Without a bill of rights offering protection from government intrusions on privacy, individuals have no recourse against local governmental agencies that provide such tapes to producers.

The producers protect themselves from invasion-of-privacy lawsuits by making the footage sufficiently fuzzy - if it is not already - to prevent identification of those caught in the act. Not that the average person would be likely to come forward.

While their faces are unidentifiable, their candid performances are quite clear: the man and woman having sex amid the manila folders, the couple having sex in the front seat of a large car, the woman - described in "Caught in the Act" as a shoplifter - disrobing in a department-store dressing room.

Hunt happily acknowledges that while the videos purport to be a form of protest about surveillance, they also bring in money. "We sold 60,000 in the first morning" when a revised version of "Caught in the Act" was released recently, he said, and "we've ordered another 125,000 copies. When it comes down to video journalism - and that is what we claim to be - we're total hypocrites."

Britain's Local Government Information Unit, an umbrella organization of city and county authorities, is proposing a new voluntary Spy Camera Code that would restrict access to the tapes.

Alan Pickstock, a spokesman for the group, estimated that 300 of the country's 400 local-government agencies operate security cameras as a crime deterrent. He said work on the code began before the videos hit the shelves, following a study that highlighted the absence of restrictions on who gets to look at what.

Liberty, the civil-liberties group, does not think voluntary codes go far enough.

The debut of "Caught in the Act" last month caused a controversy that prompted its producers to withdraw it, edit it - eliminating, among other things, sex in an elevator - and then reissue it, taking full advantage of the flap. This is "the footage `they' don't want you to see,' " says the blurb on the new version's cover.

In the interim, a copycat producer put out a similar video called "Really Caught in the Act: CCTV - The Shocking Truth."

Hunt fully expects to pull the new version as well, because members of Parliament already have voiced outrage about it. "But," he said, "we can sell large numbers before it's withdrawn again. . . . We're hoping we can keep this going."