REVEALED: Spy cameras on Hampstead Heath

EXCLUSIVE: BIG Brother will be watching you in the future when you venture onto Hampstead Heath

Ed Thomas

BIG Brother will be watching you in the future when you venture onto Hampstead Heath.

The Heath Constabulary, which patrols the wilderness for the City of London Corporation, now has its hands on military surveillance technology in the form of mobile CCTV.

The new camera can be wheeled out on a trailer or mounted on a telescopic pole in strategic positions, including Parliament Hill, where school children often cause trouble, or the West Heath, renowned as a gay cruising spot.

Despite civil liberties and gay rights groups raising concerns, the hi-tech camera is the pride and joy of the Heath Constabulary, who this week showed it off to the Ham&High.

"We can deploy the camera almost anywhere on the Heath - you could put it up a tree if you wanted to although it might damage the tree," said constabulary manager Richard Gentry.

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"We can use lamposts, a trailer or a telescopic pole. And because it uses 3G technology, you can view the live images from anywhere in the world.

"I could be sitting in Glasgow watching what's happening on the Heath. All I need is a laptop and wireless internet connection."

Crime fighters hope the technology will drive down crime and anti-social behaviour this summer.

"We wanted something to prevent crime and gather evidence in case offences occur," said Mr Gentry. "I think the system is fantastic - the quality of the colour images is very good and it can run off batteries, a generator or the mains."

The camera equipment, used by the British Army in war zones such as Afghanistan, was piloted at the Easter Fair on the Heath and showed promising results, despite foul weather.

Mr Gentry insisted his aim was not to be "sneaky" in catching people unawares, but to keep the public safe.

"We will be running high-visibility operations and the cameras will be signposted so that people know they might be on film," he said. "It is not intended as a covert system."

But Lou Hart, director of Camden's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) forum, said CCTV will be a double-edged sword.

"It is an ambiguous situation," he said. "On the one hand, there have been violent robberies on the West Heath where men have been attacked, so cameras might help to apprehend suspects and protect individuals who go there.

"But on the other hand, quite a few men who go up there for sex with other men do not refer to themselves as gay - they are married or have families. These people who are effectively 'in the closet' might see this as dangerous in terms of their confidentiality and it may put them off going to the Heath."

Civil rights group Liberty is also apprehensive. A spokeswoman said: "CCTV is not a magic bullet in cutting crime - in fact, studies have shown that regular, consistent police patrolling and good street lighting are more effective."

Reactions on the Heath this week were also mixed. One female dog walker said: "I don't think there should be cameras here. It is an important place for people to come, like a sanctuary far from the 'Big Brother' state. I don't want to be watched."

A pensioner said: "It shouldn't make any difference. It is a good thing to feel safe."

And a couple walking their dogs said: "We're ambivalent about it. If it is used for safety reasons, I think it is a good idea. But you don't know if they will use it for another purpose later on."