CCTV: Orwellian nightmare or technical fix?


Placa de George Orwell - irony intended?

It’s been awhile since I’ve traveled by train, but yesterday I boarded old faithful VIA bound for Kingston for the SCAN workshop on camera surveillance in Canada. The workshop is part of the New Transparency project (and my new job). I’d forgotten how lovely the train is!

Clive Norris opened the workshop a public lecture on the global growth of CCTV. His work largely examines empirical research done on the efficacy of CCTV  in preventing and deterring crime, and in catching criminals. In brief, his findings are that there is a mismatch between social scientific evidence of CCTVs success and its global success as a crime prevention and reduction technology.

Technically CCTV is little more than some plastic, a lens, a few wires – a camera, a monitor and a video recorder. But early, rudimentary systems became more complex with the addition of cameras and complications began to emerge. Do you add more video recorders? How do you to manage all the data generated in a multi-camera system. What are the human (and therefore financial) resources required to support this? And what about the disconnect between observing crimes-in-progress, and deploying law enforcement?

These are all pressing questions that portray CCTV as a sociotechnical ensemble. Norris cautioned that CCTV should not be fetishized as a technology but remain firmly in its sociological, criminological and organizational context. Indeed, Norris traced the fast rise and proliferation of CCTV in England to an emotionally charged social moment: The abduction and brutal murder of James Bulger. The infamous footage of the toddler being led away by the 10-year-old boys who would soon beat him to death served as an implicit justification for the use of CCTV and as well as a warrant for its further implementation. As Norris pointed out, CCTV didn’t save Bulger, nor did the footage necessarily have an impact at trial, but it certainly fueled public outcry and moral panic, at a time of rising crime and general public anxiety. This thrust CCTV in the spotlight, presenting an opportunity which was seized upon by the UK government. Indeed, more intrusive surveillance technologies tend to be introduced after particularly traumatic events (such as 9/11), in times of high public anxiety.

Supported largely by public funding, CCTV quickly spread in England, with London fast emerging as the most surveilled city in the world. Europe, where privacy and data protection were more of a concern, followed more slowly. By the 2000s, however, CCTV began to diffuse across Europe. Today there is a massive deployment of CCTV within public infrastructure – railways, airports, subways, as well as in city centre streets.

Worldwide expansion  has made CCTV a lucrative industry, worth tens of billions of dollars, largely funded with public money. Yet the evidence of CCTV’s efficacy in preventing or deterring crime has largely been ignored. In any case, there is a dearth of evaluation, no requirement for evaluation to qualify for funding (post-9/11). Further, evaluation of CCTV by governments is not seemingly part of the policy agenda, but is rather conducted on a post-hoc basis and then ignored.

As far as its efficacy in crime deterrence, little is known. But Norris said much can be gleaned from the criminological literature. “When you’re pissed, you don’t give a toss about the camera. If you’re mad or high on cocaine, you won’t care if there’s a camera. And you’ve got to know it’s there for it to deter you.” There is also an assumption that police are willing and able to intervene in a crime-in-progress, he noted. “Police are not interested in attending low level disturbances revealed by CCTV.”

The evidence, said Norris, bears witness to a variety of outcomes. In some cases, there was actually an increase in crime, and a reduction in crime detection. Effectiveness was difficult to assess, and a number of technical (broken cameras, cameras not recording) and circumstantial (trees obstructing cameras) factors had an impact. The evidence shows that CCTV has no statistically significant impact on the crime rate.

With the evidence pointing to the relative ineffectualness of CCTV, why has it been so readily accepted? Norris puts it down to “the seduction of vision.” Seeing is believing. A picture is worth a thousand words. This simplistic interpretation, of course, has been reinforced by the media, which accentuates the few successful uses of CCTV in crime fighting. But this narrow frame does not include the millions of images that were never processed or those that were missed. It’s a highly selective narrative of CCTV, one that highlights its role in identifying culprits and bringing them to justice.

The “common sense” understanding of CCTV is as a benign or neutral technology that would be self-evidently desirable. From an evidentiary perspective, CCTV seems to supplant unreliable eyewitness testimony, providing a concrete account of events, because “the camera doesn’t lie.” This perspective is problematic, however, because it assumes the camera is the perfect witness – always watching, always recording and immediately able to give testimony, which it is not necessarily.

Norris concluded with a point of clarification: CCTV is primarily an instrument of policy, not crime prevention and reduction. It relies on public fear and a misunderstanding of what the technology can actually accomplish given its sociotechnical context. Indeed, Smith calls CCTV “a form of ‘skotison’ – intentionally obscure speech or writing designed to confuse an audience rather than clarify an issue. Hence “CCTV” (now in quotes) does not “help us understand or appreciate the role of surveillance cameras – what they *really* are – in our society.”

For more on the Surveillance Camera workshop, see Smith’s blog.

One Response to “CCTV: Orwellian nightmare or technical fix?”

  1. Richard Smith Says:

    Thanks for the shoutoutl I am hardcore about the “skotison,” actually. So hardcore I went through one of my blocks and used “strikeout” format code on all references to the dreaded “CC” work. I refuse to use it any more. Even just as shorthand. It is all “SS” for me (surveillance systems) now. Better than Stephen Fry’s “SCUNT,” right?

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