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Who’s Looking at You?

As India considers significantly stepping up its use of CCTV surveillance as part of increased security measures in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, we ask: will CCTV work? The UK has more CCTV cameras than anywhere else on earth and it’s now the world’s most heavily surveilled society. We look at the benefits and lessons that can be learnt from the UK CCTV experience.

In the 15 years since government funds first became available for public CCTV, the UK has evolved to be the most surveilled country in the world. It has more surveillance CCTVs than anywhere else on Earth. Even as long ago as 2002, according to researchers, the average UK city dweller, going about their ordinary business, is caught on camera more than a hundred times a day.

So enthusiastically has the UK embraced public space surveillance that this small island is now home to 20 per cent of the world’s CCTV cameras. Huge sums of money have been spent, and over 600 of the UK’s towns and cities now deploy CCTV cameras on their streets. And, though accurate figures are hard to come by, best estimates suggest there is now one CCTV camera for every 14 citizens — an astonishing 4.2 million lenses pointing at the population.

CCTV is now a routine and accepted part of British daily life. It is omnipresent. It’s in every major public space, at every transport hub, inside every shop and office, in schools, stadiums, colleges and hospitals, it covers every major highway and every major public event.

Does CCTV work?

So what’s been learnt in these 15 years of public scrutiny? Has CCTV increased public protection?

Well, the short answer is that CCTV is proving a very useful and valuable tool for a whole range of different applications – except for the one thing it was originally installed to achieve: crime prevention.

All of the research conducted thus far, and there have been several academic studies, indicates that CCTV’s power to deter (or displace crime to areas without CCTV) – just through the fact of its being there – is quite limited. It can have a deterrent effect on a few specific types of crime (for example, car crime in controlled areas such as multi-story car parks). But research by the UK Home Office and others, shows that the mere fact of CCTV surveillance does not prevent many serious crimes. Those involving violence, or crimes of vandalism, especially those where the perpetrator has been consuming alcohol. The reasons for this are obvious, if you think about it. People who indulge in crimes of passion have no time to take into account that they are being filmed. People who are drunk tend not to think rationally about the consequences of their actions. And of course, any would-be terrorist or suicide bomber probably doesn’t care less one way or the other if he is captured on CCTV immediately prior to carrying out his attack. An additional factor is that CCTV is now so all-pervasive in the UK, that it is pretty much impossible for the career criminal to avoid. They must work within its gaze, because they can’t work beyond it.

However, luckily for all those who earn their living through CCTV, the measure has come to be acknowledged as an exceptional, even indispensable, tool for a number of other purposes. CCTV has turned out to be very good indeed for:

Investigating crimes

Nearly every major police investigation now involves seizure of all relevant CCTV image data, and a great many criminal prosecutions now include CCTV evidence. Even in the case of a recent double-murder that took place inside the victims’ house, CCTV evidence from street cameras was used to show that the perpetrators then used the victim’s cash till cards following the crime – a critical piece of evidence helping to sway the jury to bring in a guilty verdict. CCTV evidence is proving to be enormously persuasive with both juries and, more importantly, with the arrested criminals themselves. If the analysis was to be done (which unfortunately it hasn’t been) then CCTV would be shown to be paying for itself, probably several times over, in terms of the time and money saved to the police, criminal justice system and courts through its power to encourage criminals who are shown CCTV images of their crimes to opt for early guilty pleas.

There has also been a separate benefit of CCTV. It has uncovered a whole new layer of crimes taking place in society’s public places, which hitherto would have gone unnoticed, or unreported. Police now view CCTV as the ‘third forensic discipline’, rivaling DNA and fingerprint evidence in importance. CCTV data is now routinely recovered following any major incident (and increasingly following more minor incidents), and it is often now handled and processed by specialist police CCTV evidence teams, operating within newly established regional forensic CCTV image labs. A particular advantage with CCTV is that, because cameras run 24/7, investigators can view the events leading up to an incident.

For example, following the London terrorist bombings in July 2005, security services were able not only to identify the bombers, but also discover the background to the crimes and view the rehearsal that the bombers made in the weeks prior to the attack – giving the security services important new clues about the background to the attacks and the individuals involved.

Intelligence gathering

CCTV is now frequently used to investigate those who are believed to be planning criminal activities. This surveillance is either carried out overtly or covertly. Often this will involve the deployment of temporary CCTV cameras for the duration of the operation. For this, the authorities use either mobile CCTV (vehicle-based cameras) or reloadable CCTV (cameras that can be temporarily mounted on lamp posts). In May this year, in a bizarre overt example of this type of investigation, police used Body Worn Video cameras (miniature cameras that are worn, usually either on headgear or on uniform jacket) to follow the activities of a group of suspected burglars in Essex. Police notified the individuals concerned by letter that they would be videoed, and then they followed them with cameras. Burglaries in the area during the period of the operation fell by half.

Aiding response to incidents

The third way in which CCTV has proved valuable is though its ability to help police and other responding services, including paramedics and social services, to provide appropriate response to incidents. Monitoring staff in CCTV control rooms can provide a ‘live’ assessment of the type of incident, allowing responders to roster response accordingly. If the event escalates, staff can inform police who will take necessary action to perhaps increase resources being devoted to the incident. Authorities responding to an incident are also reassured, knowing they are being watched on CCTV. There are documented instances where a police person, seeking to control public disorder, has been prevented from calling for back-up, but has been seen in difficulties by CCTV staff, who have then been able to quickly notify police to send reinforcements. CCTV staff can also quickly review CCTV data in the lead-up to an incident, even as it is happening, and communicate directly with police attending the scene, to ensure that police on the ground question the right people, or to ensure that key witnesses do not wander away from the scene.

Lessons learnt

In its short history, CCTV in Britain has evolved as a powerful and useful tool for tackling a wide range of different types of public incidents. However, the learning curve has been steep. There are some lessons that have been learnt:
  1. CCTV is of no use of itself. The biggest mistake the UK made was only to provide money for camera system installation. No funds were made available for the on-going operational needs of these systems, and no money was set aside to assist the police and courts service in handling the huge volumes of CCTV images these systems produced. As a result, for a long time, the police largely turned a blind eye to the existence of any CCTV evidence, unless the case was of a very high profile. It is now understood that CCTV only works as part of an integrated programme that takes CCTV images all the way from camera to court. It is no good generating images unless some action is taken as a result — whether that is deploying police to the scene, presenting images in court, or detaining those identified driving stolen vehicles.
  2. Technical standards. Somewhat after the event, the UK is now very keen to retro-actively apply a swathe of technical standards for the type of CCTV kit that is allowed to be deployed to view members of the public. This is because CCTV from private sources — shopping centers, offices and so on – is often of insufficient quality for use in court. It has also been because the migration from analogue to digital operation across the whole of the PSS CCTV estate has caused so much difficulty. At the last count, there were over 800 different technical standards for image data storage on DVRs. This has made image recovery following any incident enormously more time consuming, sometimes even impossible. For example, some DVR systems have no facility for saving data out to disk. Others save data out, but without the necessary viewer software needed to view the images.
  3. Standards for operation. Protections for the public against being inappropriately surveilled are weak and the law for so doing lacks teeth. Also, many criminal prosecutions involving CCTV image data from privately operated CCTV systems continue to fail — usually because of mistakes by CCTV owners in carrying out basic procedures to ensure the necessary audit trail of the evidence (for example, trivial problems like having the automated date/time image watermarking system on the recorder incorrectly set).
  4. Successful CCTV operation is mostly about people. Contrary to what was initially thought, research now shows that only a few people have the ability to spot incidents seen by cameras at the monitoring centre. It turns out to be a skill that some people have and others don’t. Specialist staff selection methods have had to be developed. Also, research undertaken on behalf of the airline industry — looking at security staff viewing baggage X-ray machines — shows that even those with the correct aptitude can only maintain the necessary level of concentration for short periods at a time — perhaps only for 20minutes or so. CCTV monitoring is often a mundane occupation, so there is a need to rotate staff through other duties at the monitoring centre for variation, and also to develop programmes whereby good staff can progress — otherwise staff churn will continue to be a significant problem.
  5. Successful CCTV operation is about partnerships. CCTV works best if the monitoring staff are in close two-way communication with those who use the outputs from their systems. Incidents seen on CCTV need to be responded to quickly and appropriately. It’s also important for monitoring staff to have real-time access to intelligence networks such as police radio, as well as commercially operated equivalent networks such those within the retail and entertainment industries.
Big Brother is watching

Has CCTV turned the UK into a surveillance society? Many argue that it has. CCTV is just a tool, like any other, in the law enforcement armory, so much depends on in whose hands it is used. In recent years there have been a number of high profile incidents that have raised public concerns. In 2005, CCTV control room operators in Merseyside used street CCTV to spy into the home of a female resident and film her preparing to take a bath — they were found guilty of voyeurism and jailed. A test case in the European Court considered the case of a man who was saved from committing suicide by being spotted on CCTV but who later claimed that his Human Rights had been violated when the local CCTV operator released CCTV images — in which he was identifiable — as part of a publicity campaign to demonstrate the value of CCTV. The EU court agreed his Human Rights had been violated. In the UK a number of organizations — including the government’s own regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office — have raised concerns about the use of CCTV.

There is a dynamic between, on the one hand, the police and intelligence services who wish to have as much freedom to surveil whoever they wish and, on the other, civil liberties groups who believe all such intrusions into people’s lives should be curtailed. What’s the appropriate point between these two extremes that will give the public the maximum protection for the minimum of privacy intrusion? Recently the UK Parliament’s House of Lords has considered this vexed question, and has made a number of recommendations intended to curtail CCTV’s excesses. These recommendations include that CCTV should only be deployed where its use is ‘proportional’ — where the activity it is to surveil is of sufficient seriousness to justify the intrusion of people’s privacy that it will entail; that the use of ‘privacy impact assessments’ should be considered prior to each new CCTV deployment; and that all CCTV data (including ANPR data) should only be kept for the minimum period defined as necessary within the Operational Requirements. The Home Office and the police have between them produced a National Strategy for CCTV in the UK, which includes the recommendation that, because CCTV necessarily entails privacy intrusion, it should not be everyone who can use it — there should be a licensing/registration/vetting programme for CCTV.

However, regardless of all of this, national surveys of the UK public’s attitude to CCTV continue to show acceptance levels for the measure of greater than 80 per cent.