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What's the point of CCTV?

Portsmouth Council is trialling a new CCTV system that claims to be able to spot anomalous behaviour and alert operators in real time so that they can respond to incidents rather than scanning 152 cameras in the hope that they spot something happening. The BBC article makes some rather spurious references to ‘Big Brother’ in this context; does it have privacy implications?

We’ve often spoken before about how the UK is the most surveilled nation in the world, and I find that deeply disturbing. The mass rollout of CCTV following the tragic murder of James Bulger and subsequent conviction of his killers based on CCTV evidence has continued relentlessly despite a general lack of qualitative evidence that it’s money well spent.

Our big problem here is that CCTV is, in most situations, completely useless for preventing or intervening in crime. It needs a trained operator to watch the screens and alert the police when an incident appears to be happening. That requires the support of a police force that is able to respond to events as they happen rather than taking two hours to answer the phone because they’re all too busy doing the paperwork demanded by central government statistical targets. If the police can’t attend at once, then CCTV is simply an evidential tool, and plays little role in preventing crime.

For example, a few days ago a friend witnessed two men loading a motorcycle into a panel van at our local station at 6:00am. The van’s numberplates were obscured, and it seems highly that the bike was being stolen. So what could he do about it? No point in alerting the authorities, because the van was gone within minutes and there was no hope of the police responding that quickly. The station CCTV cameras clearly weren’t a deterrent to them. In the absence of a rapid police response, the Portsmouth solution would have made no difference at all in this situation.

Here’s another example. A couple of years ago I intervened in a fight on a late night train. The guard informed us that HQ had already downloaded the train’s CCTV, but the attackers had fled. If the victim wanted the police to do anything about it then he and I would have to get off the train and wait at least 30 minutes for them to turn up, thus missing our last train home. Unsurprisingly the victim didn’t bother reporting the incident.

If we’re to have CCTV then I’d like to see the operators state clearly what the purpose of each individual camera is. Will they attempt to respond to incidents whilst in progress, or is it just for evidence? If they claim the former, then the number and location of individual cameras should be capped in proportion to the police’s ability to respond. And if it’s the latter, then let’s scrap the ‘intelligent’ monitoring technology, scrap the monitors and release the monitoring staff to other more productive duties (such as patrolling on foot). Police and victims can use automated services to call up tapes for evidence.

After all, CCTV isn’t a privacy threat if nobody is looking at the screens.

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