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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Just to re-inforce that: There have been (too) few studies that investigate the effectiveness of CCTV for prevention and/or investigation of crime. The ones that have been done - the NACRO study in 2002, Gill & Spriggs 2005 and the Met's own study this year - show that CCTV only contributes to the prevention or investigation of 3% of crime. Even when deployment of CCTV makes a positive impact, there often would be cheaper ways of achieving the same result: proportionate to the cost - for many crimes, improved street lighting has been shown to be as effective, cheaper, and fewer security risks (see the NACRO study). The problem, in my experience, is that decisions around CCTV investments/deployments are not based on evidence, but driven by beliefs among politicians and law enforcement. The first is that technology solves the problem, and even when it is shown not to, the response is: "we need more/better technology". The response to the Met study, for instance was: "to launch a series of initiatives to try to boost conviction rates using CCTV evidence. They include: 1. A new database of images which is expected to use technology developed by the sports advertising industry to track and identify offenders. 2. Putting images of suspects in muggings, rape and robbery cases out on the internet from next month. 3. Building a national CCTV database, incorporating pictures of convicted offenders as well as unidentified suspects. The plans for this have been drawn up, but are on hold while the technology required to carry out automated searches is refined.” i.e. - more technology, new powers, and who cares about the impact on privacy. (And, to be fair, they are often backed by public demand, because these measures make some people feel more secure.) Another reason why CCTV is currently often not effective stems from the failure to integrate the technology into processes and procedures needed to resolve the problems. We (Keval & Sasse) have a paper to be published in the Security Journal that reports problems observed in 14 CCTV control rooms. We found that broken equipment is not fixed, trees that grow in front of cameras are not cut, old equipment not disposed of - because this is another depts responsibility and requires filling in lots of forms, so it is not done. Problems due to the failure to integrate and support the audio channel - over which the majority of critical information is exchanged - were first identified over 10 years ago, and still persist. All this impairs the ability to detect or respond to problems ... but the call is always for more technology, rather than investing in proper workflow analysis, usabilty and workplace design.
As a solicitor I do find CCTV very frustrating. As the article alludes the success or failure of a CCTV system often depends on the operator. On too many occasions evidence is presented at Court, in relation to an assualt or Public Order offence that misses the start of the incident because the operator had either not seen or not been alerted to the incident until it was almost over. Static cameras should go through the same RIPA process as mobile cameras to justify why they are positioned where they are, what evidence/information has been identified, for how long will they be there and what steps have been taken to ensure that unneccesay images aren't captured.
I am always suspect of people that say CCTV does not work. Everyday criminals are caught on tape. Would those criminals ever be found if there was no CCTV? Do you really think a criminal chooses a place with cameras to steal from? I think most criminal plan their attacks and I know if I was one I would choose the place with out the cameras over the businesses and home with them!
CCTV cant solve all the problems man, think the good sides of it. It is very useful you must admit it.