Thursday, February 24, 2005

Ubiquitous TV Cameras Don't Reduce Crime, UK Study Says

Thanks to the folks at Marketplace, public radio's daily business-news program, for this tidbit from today's broadcast:

Whoever said crime doesn't pay clearly wasn't in the closed circuit TV business. The British Government spent $325 million to wire the nation with cameras. Some 4.2 million cameras later, crime is still as bad as ever.

This piqued my interest; I had to find out more. I turned up this AP story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which fleshed out the skeleton Marketplace provided:
Video cameras have blossomed in Britain since the 1990s. An estimated 4.2 million cameras now observe the country's 60 million people going about their everyday business, from getting on a bus to lining up at the bank to driving around London. It's widely estimated that the average Briton is scrutinized by 300 cameras a day.

For the Home Office-funded study, academics from the University of Leicester studied 14 closed-circuit TV systems in a variety of settings, including town centers, parking lots, hospitals and residential areas. Only the parking lot scheme was shown to cause a fall in crime.

Previous studies of the effectiveness of closed-circuit TV systems have come to similar conclusions.

Public opinion has turned against the program. Citizens seemed to know instinctively, even without the Home Office study, that the closed-circuit TV surveillance is a scam. The Associated Press reported further:
The report found that while a majority of residents backed the cameras, support in nine of the 14 areas declined after they were installed. It said governments had oversold the technology as a "magic bullet" against crime.

"For supporters of CCTV (closed-circuit TV) these findings are disappointing," said Martin Gill, the professor who led the research. "For the most part, CCTV did not produce reductions in crime and it did not make people feel safer."

The best news? The British government has decided to discontinue -- or at least no longer expand -- the spycam program:
The government's CCTV Initiative funded 684 local camera projects between 1998 and 2003. On Thursday, the Home Office said it had no plans for further spending, although local authorities and police forces could still install their own closed-circuit systems. A spokesman said the decision was not connected to the release of the report.

(If you believe that last sentence, I've got a bridge over the Thames I'd like to sell you.)

One hopes that news like this will discourage American law enforcement authorities from pursuing similar citizen surveillance programs. Milwaukee, for instance, is planning to follow in the footsteps of Tampa and Virginia Beach, two tourist destinations that have installed spycams with facial recognition software in a misguided effort to deter crime. According to a recent report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
Milwaukee police are considering using around-the-clock surveillance cameras to watch for crime in troubled areas, an increasingly popular tactic that has sparked complaints from some that it could violate privacy.

* * *

"We are taking a hard look at cameras," Deputy Chief Joseph Whiten said Thursday. He said that the equipment is costly, however, and that the cash-strapped department is looking for sources to pay for it. He said the department is committed to putting cameras in squad cars, a more common practice.

* * *

"The neighborhood knows it is there, and (it) gives them more of a sense of security and safety," Macemon said.

The cameras have shown drug deals but no violent crimes in progress, Macemon said. The department moves the cameras when problems surface elsewhere, he said.

* * *

Christopher Ahmuty, head of the Wisconsin American Civil Liberties Union, said street surveillance raises several questions: Is the purpose to record crime, alert officers or deter offenders? What would happen to the tapes?

He also wondered how police would decide exactly where to put the cameras.

"The ACLU is not opposed to the effective use of technology. We have problems with technology that undermines the trust a community may have in the police," he said.

The UK study might allow cities like Milwaukee to put the brakes on further Big Brotherism, but it should come as no surprise. Experts have noted the inefficacy of these systems for years. For instance, Steve Lilienthal of the Free Congress Foundation noted in an article published in August 2003, appropriately entitled "America Needs Character, Not More Cameras":
Not a single criminal has been identified by the facial recognition camera system that is now in use on Virginia Beach, Va., boardwalk. But the Virginia Beach police consider the camera to be a success despite the fact that the camera and software comes with a $200,000 price tag.

The St. Petersburg, Fla., airport also uses cameras and facial recognition technology. A St. Petersburg Times editorial published on April 28 stated: "These systems are clearly not ready for prime time, having had a zero success rate when trained on the general public in search of criminals and tourists at the Super Bowl and at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport."

Lilienthal continued:
Criminals are not deterred by cameras. When Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union testified before the Washington, D.C. City Council's Judiciary Committee last December, he noted that Great Britain has relied extensively on closed circuit cameras as a crime fighting tool but they have failed to lead to any reduction in crime.

After reading a litany of the failure of cameras to cut crime, Steinhardt concluded "At most, what [CCTV] does is to displace criminal activity to areas outside the range of the cameras." Despite all the cameras, criminals keep breaking the laws, and an extraordinary number are not getting caught.

In October 2002, David Kopel and Michael Krause of the Independence Institute wrote an article in Reason about the increasing use of facial recognition technology (FRT), pointing up its ineffectiveness:
FRT, currently used in at least two U.S. cities and widespread throughout Great Britain, is notoriously unreliable and ineffective. At its best, it brings to our streets the high-tech equivalent of the Department of Transportation’s airport security policy: humiliate and search everyone ineffectively.

That’s bad enough, but the real problems will occur if FRT ever does start working as promised. It threatens to create a creepy future of ubiquitous spy cameras that will be used by police for purposes far less noble than thwarting terrorists.

* * *

Despite ubiquitous cameras, however, violent and property crime in England is soaring. A three-year government study by the Scottish Center for Criminology recently concluded there is no evidence to suggest that Britain’s spy cameras have reduced serious crime overall. Another study, this one by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, looked at 14 British cities and found that the cameras had little effect in reducing crime. The study suggested that improving street lighting would be a more cost-effective crime prevention method.

This much can be said in favor of the cameras: In some cases, they have been used to convict speeders, other traffic law offenders, and litterbugs. Yet it’s one thing to give up your privacy to catch Irish Republican Army terrorists. It’s another thing to surrender privacy so the police can catch people who litter.

Kopel and Krause end their Reason piece -- which is well worth reading in its entirety -- with this dire warning:
Ultimately, the future of face scanning will depend on the political process. There is almost no chance that the American public or their elected officials would vote in favor of tracking everyone all the time. Yet face scanning is typically introduced and then expanded by administrative fiat, without specific legislative permission.

So there is a strong possibility that future Americans will be surprised to learn from history books that in the first centuries of American independence citizens took for granted that the government did not and could not monitor all of their movements and activities in public places.

More and more American cities are looking at spyware as their quick-fix means of fighting crime. They need to look at the evidence as meticulously as the forensic teams on the many C.S.I. Crime Scene Investigation TV shows and come to the obvious conclusions: Spy cameras are ineffective at best and threats to the privacy and integrity of every citizen at worst. They need to be abandoned as a law-enforcement tool except in the most narrow circumstances.


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