LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Anyone who owns a laptop computer can now fight crime from the safety of their home and win cash prizes for catching thieves red-handed, under a new British monitoring scheme that went live this week.
The service works by employing an army of registered armchair snoopers who watch hours of CCTV footage from cameras in stores and high street venues across the country.
Viewers can win up to 1,000 pounds ($1,600) in cash a month from Devon-based firm Internet Eyes, which distributes the streaming footage, when offenders are caught in the act.
The scheme immediately drew criticism from civil liberties campaigners who say it is more evidence that Britain has become a "Big Brother" surveillance society with CCTV on every corner.
Participants, who pay a fee to subscribe, press an "alert" button which relays an instant text message notifying a shop keeper of suspicious behavior. The SMS is followed up with a photographic image of the potential crime.
Founder of Internet Eyes, Tony Morgan, says the scheme puts shop owners back in control of security and allows local communities to tackle crime and anti-social behavior.
"The problem with CCTV is that while cameras are practically everywhere, there's hardly anyone watching them in real time," Morgan said. "Most people know this, so CCTV is no longer the deterrent it used to be, and crime is rising."
Industry body, the Center for Retail Research, says shoplifting is at record levels, costing the UK economy almost 5 billion pounds a year.
Registered participants in the scheme must be over 18, are not able to choose which footage they see, nor view premises in their local area.
The firm told Reuters it has 13,500 interested viewers from across the European Union and aims to have 3,000 paid-up members by the end of October.
The government's Information Commissioner's Office says the firm is being made to comply with data protection laws and has also insisted on background checks on viewers employed by the site.
But Charles Farrier of campaign group NO CCTV said the launch marked another disturbing chapter in the nation's surveillance society.
"The Information Commissioner has put private profit above personal privacy in allowing a private company to launch its Stasi-style citizen spy game rather than defending the rights of British citizens," he said.
The director of another group, Big Brother Watch said it was a worrying development akin to "pimping out" CCTV images to amateur bounty hunters and should be switched off.
"Innocent people out doing their shopping shouldn't be snooped on like this," Alex Deane told Reuters.
"Whatever one thinks of our surveillance culture, we can all agree that the technology is better off in the hands of trained, accountable professionals rather than voyeurs."
Editing by Steve Addison