That CCTV doesn’t substantially help in reducing crime has been shown beyond reasonable doubt, proposes Bruce Schneier, so now the pressing question is whether or not the benefits security cameras do afford are worthwhile.
There are exceptions, of course, and proponents of cameras can always cherry-pick examples to bolster their argument. These success stories are what convince us; our brains are wired to respond more strongly to anecdotes than to data. But the data are clear: CCTV cameras have minimal value in the fight against crime. [â€¦]
The important question isn’t whether cameras solve past crime or deter future crime; it’s whether they’re a good use of resources. They’re expensive, both in money and in their Orwellian effects on privacy and civil liberties. Their inevitable misuse is another cost. [â€¦] Though we might be willing to accept these downsides for a real increase in security, cameras don’t provide that.
In August 2009 Schneier discussed a report that showed only one crime per thousand cameras per year is solved because of CCTV and quotes David Davis MP saying that “CCTV leads to massive expense and minimum effectiveness. It creates a huge intrusion on privacy, yet provides little or no improvement in security.”
A Home Office study also concluded that cameras had done “virtually nothing” to cut crime (although they were effective in preventing vehicle crimes in car parks), but do “help communities feel safer” (a case of classic security theatre).
For many years the British public has often been told that the United Kingdom has 4.2 million CCTV camerasâ€”that’s one for every fourteen residentsâ€”as widely quoted by politicians, various media, and even the police.
This statistic is rarely questioned, but thanks to a recent episode of the excellent More or Less (UK-only?) suggesting that this statistic was, at best, dubious, I decided to do some reading.
I didn’t have to read much.
The statistic comes from a 2002 report from the URBANEYE project, looking at the prevalence of video surveillance in London (pdf). From the Conclusion:
In our Putney sample, 41% of premises had CCTV systems in operation. These institutions had an average of 4.1 surveillance cameras. If we use these figures to extrapolate the extent of CCTV coverage in London and the country as a whole we come up with the following results. If we begin by assuming that the extent of CCTV coverage in Putney is broadly representative of CCTV coverage across the whole of London, we could estimate that 41% (102,910) of the 251,000 business registered for VAT in London would have a CCTV system. Between them these businesses will have 421,931 surveillance cameras. If we add to these the number of surveillance cameras operating in other public institutions (open-street systems, transport, hospital, schools etc.) it would not be unreasonable to ‘guesstimate’ that Londoners are monitored by at least 500,000 CCTV cameras. This means that in London (with a population of 7.2 million residents) there is approximately one camera for every fourteen people. From these figures we would suggest that in the UK (with a population of almost 60 million) there are at least 4,285,000 cameras in the UK.
The Putney sample was a paltry 211 premises. AndÂ Putney, as one of the 35 major areas in Greater London, is hardly representative of the UK as a whole. Even the CCTV User Group says the results are “extremely questionable”.
After a school here in the UK installed a CCTV system in a classroom used for the teaching of an A-level politics class the students revolted; walking out only to return once they were reassured that the monitoring system was inactive and to be used solely as a teaching aid.
The students’ plight was eventually picked-up by The Guardian where two rather eloquent students put forth their views on education, surveillance, and the unnecessary combination of the two.
The truth is that we are whatever the generation before us has created. If you criticise us, we are your failures; and if you applaud us we are your successes, and we reflect the imperfections of society and of human life. If you want to reform the education system, if you want to raise education standards, then watching children every hour of every day isn’t the answer. The answer is to encourage students to learn by creating an environment in which they can express their ideas freely and without intimidation.