Public Security Cameras

There is ongoing debate about the issue of security cameras, how many should there be, where should they be located, and who should be able to access the data.

I spent about a year living in London which probably has more security cameras and a greater ratio of cameras to people than any other city. I was never bothered by this. I believe that if implemented correctly security cameras increase public safety and will not have any serious problems.

A while ago I witnessed a violent assault (which could potentially have ended up as a manslaughter case – it was merely luck that ~200 people got off a train at the right time to scare the attackers off). AFAIK I was the only person who identified themself to the police and was prepared to stand as a witness, without security camera footage the case would not have gone anywhere (I only saw the attackers from behind as they ran off). Security camera footage allowed the police to identify the attackers, my testimony was not required and I was never informed as to how the case proceeded – but I know for a fact that the police investigation depended on security camera footage and that they did make progress in the case based on such footage.

There are current plans to increase the scope of security cameras in many cities under the guise of the “war on terror”. The problem is that once a terrorist is involved in an attack it’s too late for security cameras. Security cameras are really only good for catching criminals after an attack, in most cases they will be entirely ineffective against suicide bombers as the issue of catching them is moot. There have been cases where security cameras have enabled the authorities to identify people with terrorist ideas who were investigating military bases (but I wouldn’t call such lamers “terrorists” as all the available evidence suggests that they would be incapable of succeeding in an attack). However no-one is disputing the fact that military installations need to have good security.

Given that security cameras do provide significant benefits to public safety I don’t think it’s reasonable to oppose them as long as they are implemented in a sensible and responsible manner. Most of the current plans to install security cameras don’t seem to be sensible and have few controls on who can access the data. This makes them good targets for oppressive government actions, organised crime, and even terrorists. The countries that have serious terrorist problems always have problems of terrorists infiltrating government departments and bribing government officials. A centralised system that allows the police to watch anyone at any time would probably do more good for al Quaeda and the Mafia than it would for regular police action.

For the fastest possible response a security camera system needs to have humans able to monitor it’s output in real-time. Having a control-room where police officers can randomly switch between public cameras to see if a crime appears to be in progress is a good thing (and works well in the UK). Of course the actions of such police need to be monitored to make sure that they are actually doing their job (not checking out hotties on the camera – an ongoing problem with security cameras).

Finally there’s the issue of what level of surveillance can be expected in a public place. I think that most people agree that when you enter a government building it’s reasonable to expect that you will be on camera, and many private buildings have security cameras with a condition of entry being that you permit yourself to be watched and no-one seems to be boycotting shopping centres because of this. Significant public spaces such as main roads and public transport also seem like reasonable locations for security cameras.

One location that is widely disputed is that of streets in residential areas. Most people who are happy to be photographed when entering and leaving public buildings such as train stations and shopping centres are not happy to be photographed when entering and leaving their own home.

I think that a reasonable solution to these problems requires the following:

  1. Restrictions on the duration and scope of surveillance in residential areas (EG require police to get court orders for such surveillance that must be periodically renewed).
  2. Restricting the duration for which records may be kept by the police. Keeping any records for longer than the period in question (which would be a few weeks at most) would require a court order.
  3. Prohibiting private organisations from handling surveillance data from government property (including public roads, train stations, etc). There are problems with having a private company aggregate surveillance data from multiple private properties but I don’t think we can address this at the moment.

4 comments to Public Security Cameras

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  • Fred

    It all depends on attitude and expectation.

    I lived in an Asian country for a number of years that had a very low rate of serious crime, which I put down to two items.

    Significant video camera coverage everywhere, with all housing estates, condo’s etc also using the same mentality.

    Every citizen, permanent resident, tempoorary worker had both their picture and finger prints recorded, which then included a national ID card with the thumb print and photo.

    What it meant was the policing was absolutely not visible anywhere but you always knew somebody was watching…you didn’t ever think about it and it never really crossed the mind except when returning home where police beats, patrol cars etc are very more visible and the crime rates very much higher.

    I am not sure this is an oxy moron but I did get that feeling. Then again most Asian races (large generialisation) are brought up in a less than fully democratic country but have significant freedom.

    Many of these countries have no social security handouts, dole etc Makes me wonder where the more western world has failed.

  • etbe

    Fred: When you look at a country with different cultural traditions, different religions, and a different socio-political history it’s very difficult to determine which factors cause differences.

    As for being “fully democratic”, where is such a country? The US, the UK, and Australia are involved in losing a war based on lies that the population as a whole never wanted – yet no-one is being held accountable. Being able to vote for a government means little if the government won’t actually respect the wishes of the voters.

    Regarding social-security etc. Note that success of Americans in creating new profitable companies is largely attributed to not fearing failure. Many successful businessmen have failed several times before finally succeeding, if each failure costs $100K and success makes $100M then it’s a worth-while investment! Dole is another factor that makes people fear failure less. If you want to hire someone to work in a start-up you can tell them “don’t worry, the dole pays enough to live on if this doesn’t work out”…