Saturday, March 21, 2009

George Orwell, CCTV and the Ring of Steel

How many times have you turned on TV news and watched security camera images of crooks robbing a convenience store? Or CCTV images of street violence broadcast on the evening news? Security cameras have been with us for many decades, usually inside buildings and vulnerable underground parking lots.

Ever since the UK installed thousands of cameras on public streets a decade ago debate has raged whether they prevent crime or infringe on our privacy. Or both. Offical eyes watching our every move!

Since the early 1990s the UK has led the way. Today over a half million cameras have watched public places all around London. This is the so-called ring of steel. Orwell would roll over!

Obviously we cannot consider city safety until we look at the issue of CCTV in public places. Does it work? Are there better answers?

The most authoritative voices I have found are David Farrington and Brandon Welsh. Most of their UK research shows conflicting results. Half the time public CCTV can have a positive (but small) impact. The other half the time, no impact at all.

read the Farrington study

Later they report street lighting has equal crime prevention impact to cameras in downtown areas, but these effects were greater in the UK than in North America.

read the Camera vs Lighting research

This is all music to the ears of those practicing Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design - CPTED. The CPTED folks have said for years building a livable and vital downtown, where a wide range of people spend their leisure evening hours, is the best way to improve the natural visibility.

I remember when public cameras were installed in in Sudbury, Canada over a decade ago following some downtown bank robberies. I recently read a Washington Post article on a similar trend in US cities

read the Washington Post article

None of which answers the questions: Does CCTV really work to prevent crime downtown? Are there better ways to prevent crime?

One thing we know for sure:

Every time we watch a robber or street violence on CCTV, the crime is already underway. Cameras might help police catch bad guys later. But those cameras did nothing to prevent crime in the first place.

If they did, we wouldn't be watching them on TV!

2 Replies so far - Add your comment

Anonymous said...

The Surveillance Camera Awareness Network (SCAN), an organization co-ordinated by researchers at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada, says there is no evidence that CCTV deters crime. (the work is part of the efforts of the Surveillance Project at Queen's:

A major daily newspaper, the Ottawa Citizen, produced a major series recently on surveillance, focusing on the work of SCAN

I sometimes blog about surveillance and crime, as a veteran journalist covering crime and justice issues.

GSaville said...

Thanks for that great post Rob. Those links are valuable.

The Farrington and Welsh studies I cite show there is scientific research suggesting "some" prevention impact in "a few" limited cases. (PS: I hope the Ottawa Citizen did proper investigative journalism homework and reported this research too!).

Personally I am not a big supporter of CCTV for prevention in public places. Cameras just don't do the job that we can do better. Plus they trigger funding detours from more effective strategies.