Tuesday, July 01, 2008


Cameras in the security theatre

I read the following two items on the same day.

The first item is “More Delays for Cameras in Subways ”, in the New York Times:

Aging fiber-optic cable in Brooklyn and Queens has become the latest obstacle to a planned high-tech system of surveillance cameras meant to safeguard the subway and commuter railroads, according to Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials.

The system, which is expected to cost at least $450 million, is a crucial component of a larger program to thwart terrorist attacks on the region’s transportation network, but it has met repeatedly with technical problems and delays.


The comptroller’s report also said that the surveillance project had been scaled back because of problems adapting the cameras’ software to conditions in the authority’s facilities.

One of the officials who spoke on Wednesday said those problems involved the cameras’ ability to spot an unattended bag or briefcase left on a train platform or other busy area and then alert law enforcement to the possible hazard. That capability had originally been promoted as a major feature of the system, but the official said it had failed in tests.

“There are too many people, too many things moving around in the system,” the official said.


The comptroller’s office has issued periodic reports highlighting delays and increasing costs in the authority’s security program, which was conceived after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The program includes the surveillance system as well as other projects to improve the security of bridges, tunnels and other facilities.

The second item is “CCTV doesn’t keep us safe, yet the cameras are everywhere”, by Bruce Schneier for The Guardian (UK):

Pervasive security cameras don’t substantially reduce crime. There are exceptions, of course, and that’s what gets the press. Most famously, CCTV cameras helped catch James Bulger’s murderers in 1993. And earlier this year, they helped convict Steve Wright of murdering five women in the Ipswich area. But these are the well-publicised exceptions. Overall, CCTV cameras aren’t very effective.

This fact has been demonstrated again and again: by a comprehensive study for the Home Office in 2005, by several studies in the US, and again with new data announced last month by New Scotland Yard. They actually solve very few crimes, and their deterrent effect is minimal.


But 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.

It seems that the one is evidence for the other, doesn’t it?

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