Pervasive security cameras don't substantially reduce crime. This fact has been demonstrated repeatedly: in San Francisco public housing, in a New York apartment complex, in Philadelphia, in Washington, DC, in study after study in both the U.S. and the U.K. Nor are they instrumental in solving many crimes after the fact.
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 is clear: CCTV cameras have minimal value in the fight against crime.
While it's comforting to imagine vigilant police monitoring every camera, the truth is very different, for a variety of reasons: technological limitations of cameras, organizational limitations of police, and the adaptive abilities of criminals. No one looks at most CCTV footage until well after a crime is committed. And when the police do look at the recordings, it's very common for them to be unable to identify suspects. Criminals don't often stare helpfully at the lens, and -- unlike the Dubai assassins -- tend to wear sunglasses and hats. Cameras break far too often. Even when they afford quick identification -- think of the footage of the 9/11 terrorists going through airport security, or the 7/7 London transport bombers just before the bombs exploded -- police are often able to identify those suspects even without the cameras. Cameras afford a false sense of security, encouraging laziness when we need police to be vigilant. ...
But 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 their Orwellian effects on privacy and civil liberties. Their inevitable misuse is another cost: police have already spied on naked women in their own homes, shared nude images, sold best-of videos, and spied on national politicians. While we might be willing to accept these downsides for a real increase in security, cameras don't provide that. Despite our predilection for preferring technological solutions over human ones, the funds now spent on CCTV cameras would be far better spent on hiring and training police officers.
Anyone interested in serious, high-end thinking about security issues, btw, should be aware of Schneier, whose blog and books have influenced my own thinking quite a bit on several subjects, including this one.
Cameras have been tested to the Nth degree in places like London, where you literally can't walk outside in most parts of the city without being captured on government surveillance. Bottom line: Cameras in public spaces don't reduce crime. They are effective in limited, well-defined circumstances: To protect specific, high-value assets, and then only when combined with other factors like adequate lighting, human monitoring of the cameras and the capability for rapid response. But for all the reasons cited by Schneier, the practice of police monitoring cameras in pubic spaces to prevent crime has in practice been more bane than boon.
See related Grits posts:
- A cost-benefit nightmare: One crime solved per 1,000 surveillance cameras
- UK to police: Cameras in public places don't reduce crime
- Cameras, crime reduction and cost
- Dallas police cameras focused on petty crime, public relations
- CCTV proponents should abandon claim that surveillance cameras reduce crime
- Schneier: Now's the time to limit CCTV waste and abuse
- Surveillance cameras and crime
- Best way to terminate surveillance society is through cost-benefit analysis
- Does camera surveillance in public areas reduce crime? Austin chief think so
- Over the Top: Houston chief wants cameras in apartments, private homes
- Cameras wrong response to London bombings
- Dallas cops share surveillance tapes with private businesses
- Why surveillance cameras don't reduce crime
- Safer with camera surveillance or just more exposed?
- Britain: Surveillance cameras 'do not stop crime'
- Big Brother cashes in: Biometrics industry sees profit growth in surveillance camera proliferation