Wednesday, March 03, 2010

On the limits of surveillance cameras for crime reduction

Security guru Bruce Schneier had a recent column for CNN on the limits of security benefits from surveillance cameras in public spaces. It covers much ground traversed on Grits in the past, but states (and sources) the arguments especially well. Here's a taste:

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:

10 comments:

shg said...

It may well be that cameras have provided a greater benefit to those who need evidence against the police. Though the Orwellian point is well taken, let's not ignore the benefit that cameras provide in disproving police allegations or capturing misconduct or abuse. Maybe they aren't a total waste of money?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Agreed, Scott, with a caveat.

Better suited for that purpose are cameras in police cars and body mics to record interactions with citizens and suspects. To that end, btw, it's worth mentioning Texas actually put cameras in most police cars doing traffic stops after 2001. Not every jurisdiction does it, but most do. Though they fought it at first, cops soon figured out that even if it sometimes exposes misconduct, mostly it protects good cops from false allegations.

And just to be clear: My position is not that cameras are a total waste of money. They're useful in certain circumstances, in particular when aimed at specific, high-value targets.

That high-value distinction IMO applies to recording police interactions on the street and in-custody interrogations. There's great evidentiary value - both for police and for those seeking more accountability - from recording interactions between cops and those they encounter.

My criticisms, and Schneier's, were aimed at general surveillance in public areas, which have been widely touted among dozens of police chiefs, mayors, etc., who would use them for security theater.

Like any tool there are always instances on a case by case basis where a tactic may be quite useful and others where it's inapplicable. In the case of surveillance cameras, through fairly rigorous, longitudinal research, folks have pretty much figured out what those are.

Anonymous said...

Cameras are like snitches.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Cameras are like snitches"

Which is to say they seldom provide useful or actionable information, are prone to misinterpretation and abuse, and their use may result in tolerating crime more than reducing it.

Or maybe you meant something else? :)

Anonymous said...

Hate them snitches. Spyin on the brotha.

Boyness said...

Hold on...I cannot stop laughing...HA HA HA HA HA HA...OMG Scott, all I can think about is the torching of the Texas Governors Mansion. Yes there were cameras, I think some were broken but they were being monitored by a DPS IDIOT who was busy playing on the internet instead of doing his job. Cameras have there purpose but who in the hell is watching the monitors? Anyone? I am going to start laughing again.......

Anonymous said...

OK, just this past week my suitcase was stolen at Chicago O'Hare as I sat alone by a boarding gate.

One second it was there, the next gone. Vanished.

I reported it to the customer service person, who told me to report it to security, who called Chicago's finest.

I suddenly found myself in a Steve Martin/ John Candy movie. The cop laughingly told me it was impossible for my bag to have been stolen in a secure area, it NEVER happens, I MUST have left it somewhere else. Someone MUST have mis-taken it as they boarded a flight. Happens all the time heh,heh,heh.

I suggested they check the cameras to see if I was lying or not.

That's when the jovial cop became menacing - it NEVER happens, I was told between clenched teeth, and I would need a court order to view the camera tape. This was NOT a matter of national security!

I'm a Vietnam Nam era veteran asked to practically strip to my skivvies to pass through 'security', yet someone can steal a bag in a 'secure' area.

So I spent a week's vacation in Wal Mart clothes.

Anonymous said...

I don't like it when I see cameras in stores. They say that when the store is robbed they want to see who did it. You can't tell who did it with a camera. The camera will identify the wrong person, an innocent person, and confuse the jury.

Anonymous said...

A camera is only as good as the person monitoring it.

I have web-enabled security cameras on my property, and they have identified unauthorized entry by people twice last year. The sheriffs dept was more than happy to investigate, based upon the video of the vehicles alone, and were able to identify them, and pay the people a visit. For this application, the cameras seem to work very well.

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