Sunday, July 06, 2008

Schneier: Now's the time to limit CCTV waste and abuse

At the tail end of an excellent article in the UK Guardian on the relative ineffectiveness of surveillance cameras in public spaces ("CCTV doesn't keep us safe, yet the cameras are everywhere," June 26), security consultant Bruce Schneier makes a fascinating (to me) observation about the particular moment we find ourselves inhabiting regarding surveillance camera technology.
We live in a unique time in our society: the cameras are everywhere, and we can still see them. Ten years ago, cameras were much rarer than they are today. And in 10 years, they'll be so small you won't even notice them. Already, companies like L-1 Security Solutions are developing police-state CCTV surveillance technologies like facial recognition for China, technology that will find their way into countries like the UK. The time to address appropriate limits on this technology is before the cameras fade from notice.
Schneier's point reminds me of an article I saw not long ago in Scientific American which argued that humans are only able to identify the so-called "Big Bang" as the origin of the universe because we're still relatively close to its formation (in chronological and cosmological terms) and can judge the relative motion of heavenly bodies against one another to determine their likely common origin. Someone observing the universe 100 billion years from now, the writer observed, would see stars and galaxies much more spread out, moving more slowly and utterly disassociated with their origins compared to today.

In other words, according to this view, scientists can only observe the Big Bang because of the moment in time we're in, and applying the scientific method from a vantage point in the distant future would generate a different result.

Schneier says we're in a similar circumstance regarding surveillance cameras, occupying a unique moment in time when cameras are both increasingly ubiquitous and still visible to the human eye. It's an astute observation from one of the United States' most important thinkers on security.

There's another reason now's a good time to have a debate about the effectiveness of surveillance cameras, particularly in Britain: This is the first period in which widespread surveillance has been in use long enough to measure the impact on crime, which turns out to be negligible. According to Scotland Yard, "Massive investment in CCTV cameras to prevent crime in the UK has failed to have a significant impact, despite billions of pounds spent on the new technology." Writes Schneier:
the question really isn't whether cameras reduce crime; the question is whether they're worth it. And given their cost (£500 m in the past 10 years), their limited effectiveness, the potential for abuse (spying on naked women in their own homes, sharing nude images, selling best-of videos, and even spying on national politicians) and their Orwellian effects on privacy and civil liberties, most of the time they're not. The funds spent on CCTV cameras would be far better spent on hiring experienced police officers.
In Houston, Austin and elsewhere police have invested heavily in surveillance cameras for public spaces, though by no means to the ubiquitous extent one finds in London. So it's worth American police officials looking across the pond to the Big Smoke for predictions about how that experiment will pan out. Early money is riding on lots of police resources wasted with little if any crime reduction to show for it.

See prior related Grits coverage:


Anonymous said...

Funny.. I was just having a conversation about this with a friend. His car was broken into. The camera (not being monitored in real time) showed a guy breaking into the car. You see him park next to, break in, and leave.

Oh yeah, this video is not clear enough to show faces, license plates, or anything else. Perfect!

Anonymous said...

What about increasing the probability of apprehending and convicting the right offender and is there any advantage from increasing the surveillance of the police?

I agree that abuse of surveillance has the potential to become a serious problem and it does not appear to be very cost effective (the hardware costs are going down but the analysis costs are going up).

Anonymous said...

Low-quality cameras will prove worthless. High-quality equipment, good enough to identify faces and read license plate numbers, will CAUSE crime -- the stealing of expensive cameras. It's stupid to leave expensive equipment unattended and unprotected. Crappy equipment won't do any good and won't be worth stealing.

Anonymous said...

Well actually I think if we base our opinion on what the Bible says was the beginning of things and how everything existed and was created, then we are not that far from that poinbt you mention.

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