Monday, June 14, 2010

Facts About CCTV Cameras

Today is the first guest written blog post for this blog. It is written by Alex Deane. I have had the privilege to have heard Alex Deane twice in political debates and can therefore see why he was an Cambridge University debating champion. He is now the head of an excellent organisation called Big Brother Watch. Big Brother Watch is an excellent organisation, which has been documenting relentlessly the ever growing intrusion into our lives either by the state or by private organisations. They have grown from strength to strength which has been highlighted by the increasing coverage given to big brother watch in the national media. If you would like to learn more about this organisation please go to Today Alex Deane will be writing about CCTV Cameras.

We are being watched by the state ever more closely. Research which suggested that we have 4.2 million CCTV cameras in this country is now 10 years old; nobody has done an updated study since.

Having surveyed all councils in the country, Big Brother Watch published new data in 2009 which showed that the number of cameras run by local authorities alone (a fraction of the total, of course) has trebled in the past decade. As our American friends say, "do the maths".

I’m not a Luddite. Technology has a role to play in law enforcement. But there are serious concerns about privacy and the nature of the state’s role in society – and of course, the public purse offers finite resources, and money spent in this way is money that cannot be spent on other forms of policing, such as officers on the street. It’s a question of balance.

We’re the only country that’s gone so far down this path. The Shetland Islands has more CCTV cameras than San Francisco Police Department. CCTV is now the single most heavily-funded crime prevention measure operating outside the criminal justice system, accounting for more than three quarters of spending on crime prevention by the Home Office.

The growing network of surveillance can in no way be justified as a crime-fighting tool. As the number of cameras has gone up, the number of crimes detected using them has gone down. Between 2003/4 and 2008/9 there has been a 71 per cent fall in the number of crimes "in which CCTV was involved" for detection purposes in the Metropolitan Police area. The proportion of all crimes actually solved using CCTV in London also fell from half in 2003/4 to one in seven in 2008/9; the Met’s own figures now state that for every 1,000 cameras in their jurisdiction, one crime is solved each year - a staggeringly inefficient figure which strongly suggests that even disregarding privacy concerns the cameras aren't worth the money in terms of simple return.

Perhaps that’s because cameras are often turned off or not working - which is much worse than them simply not being there, as law enforcement becomes dependent on an unreliable resource. When they’re working and turned on, sometimes they’re not pointing in the right direction. Footage is often scrubbed before law enforcement officials collect it. When it’s working, turned on, pointing in the right direction and not scrubbed, the quality of footage is often such that courts cannot use it. This is not an argument for more and better CCTV, given the privacy concerns surrounding it and given that we already spend too much money on it as things stand. Using material put into the public domain by councils renewing their CCTV networks, Big Brother Watch has established a figure of £3,000 maintenance per year per camera - if one contemplates the number of cameras around, that kind of expenditure would buy you a bobby or two.

Polling suggests that CCTV remains relatively popular in this country. I accept that there are some people who simply don’t mind that images are recorded. But, absent them being offered a choice between CCTV and something else, I think that that’s a reflection of whether or not people want crimes to be investigated and solved. Even some hitherto supportive voices have questioned the wisdom of flying CCTV drones, once the stuff of dystopian science fiction but now being trialled in the UK. Furthermore, the recording and (in principle, permanent) retention of the images of innocent people does cause significant privacy concerns, as those cameras become ubiquitous. One of the first reaction of any person coming to the UK from abroad is surprise at the extent of our surveillance culture. One hopes that we learn from that surprise and scale back our watching state, rather than that surprise fading as the British disease spreads to their countries in turn.

Alex Deane is the Director of Big Brother Watch