The efficacy of surveillance

November 13, 2007 at 3:00 am Leave a comment

Kim photoMaybe someone can help me out. I’ve been searching for some authoritative research on the efficacy of public webcams or CCTV cameras. Because I’m convinced that they are pretty well useless in discouraging crime. Maybe they give some people a sense of security but to others, like me, it’s all about social control. Law enforcement officials and politicians assure us that CCTV watches over urban dysfunction and is a major contributor to crime control. The unblinking staring eyes are in shopping malls, car parks, restaurants (at least the one I was in the other night), cinema complexes. Most of us hardly seem to notice them. Most of us seem disinterested, unconcerned. The usual comment is “if you have nothing to hide, why worry about them”.

If you’re not concerned about them, wouldn’t you at least like to think that CCTV cameras are the strong deterrent they’re said to be? Or wouldn’t you like to believe that there are minimum regulations for use of CCTV cameras? Or that the dudes behind the cameras receive appropriate training? Or that the camera snaps the highest quality images? I’ll take it that you’ll answer yes to these questions.

So then……perhaps check out the first official report by the UK Government’s Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers entitled National CCTV Strategy. You can download the full report from the Home Office’s Crime Reduction website. It’s just been released. The report reviews the use of CCTV in the UK and is the only official review I’ve managed to find. If you know of others, leave a comment.

Here’s a summary of the report, which to my mind underscores the concern we should all have about CCTV/public webcams:

  • 80% of cameras produce images of such poor quality that they are of no use for detection purposes – wouldn’t this make you a little worried given that law enforcement rely on CCTV as an identification device?
  • it seems that the exact number of CCTV cameras and their locations is an unknown factor
  • the original use for CCTV was largely in detecting crime but now the cameras are multi-tasking – recording vehicle number plates or monitoring groups of people in shopping malls. Somehow authorities forgot to tell us that original crime detection use has been co-opted and widened into something more sinister.
  • there is no quantitative evidence in this report that I can see that substantiates the usual claim that CCTV helps to reduce crime
  • camera to archive: little thought seems to be given to whole-of-life-cycle CCTV ie how long are the images retained?
  • there’s seems to be no idea of how private webcams are used or who is using them
  • there are no digital CCTV standards, including what is required of CCTV systems
  • there are no regulations governing the use of private CCTV systems

Now, I don’t know about you, but this report gives me no comfort and in fact alarms me further about public webcams – they’re uncontrolled, the exact whereabouts of many CCTV cameras is unknown, and they are being used not so much for crime control as for social control.

Libby Brooks in a Guardian Unlimited article makes an excellent point. Aside from being an attack on civil liberties, CCTV alters our relationship with public space. To quote: “Those who are most aware of being watched respond in ways that only render them more vulnerable to sanction: teenagers hoist up their hoodies, demonstrators cover their faces on marches. Much more insidious is the way that our misplaced confidence in an omnipresent witnessing eye apparently makes us feel absolved of any responsibility to intervene ourselves.

Britain has become a witness culture, inured to watching and being watched. Be it Big Brother or posting friends’ antics on YouTube, our leisure time has become increasingly infected with the imperative to expose ourselves and others. No activity, no individual, is deemed valid without an audience. So maybe acquiescence to a constant mechanical witness should not come as such a surprise”.

And it’s that notion of absolving of responsibility to intervene or care that I wish to explore in future posts.


Entry filed under: CCTV, Privacy, Public webcams, Surveillance society.

Citizen snoops Secrecy and surveillance: twin evils

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