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Keeping a watchful eye on video surveillance

We see it all the time in television shows like 24: The bad guy is on the run and the authorities have no idea which way he went. But by simply tapping into a video surveillance system and checking out the footage from 10 minutes ago, the police figure out exactly where to find him. Thanks to CCTV cameras, the criminal is apprehended and the case is closed - at least until the next episode.



August 12, 2009
By Patricia Pickett

Topics

But in real life, it’s often a different story. In fact researchers,
such as those with the Surveillance Camera Awareness Network (SCAN), 
say they’re hard-pressed to find evidence that video surveillance
actually prevents crime. And they’re concerned that people are becoming
too quick to accept surveillance without knowing all the facts.

SCAN’s mandate and scope

A group of academics operating under the umbrella of the Surveillance
Project at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., SCAN’s goal is to
provide reliable research resources on surveillance camera use in
Canada, and to promote awareness of CCTV issues.

"We realized that there really isn’t a sustained cooperation among
those who are interested in analyzing video surveillance, but at the
same time, there is a lot of public policy and media interest in it,"
explains David Lyon, director of the Surveillance Project and Queen’s
research chair in sociology.

Lyon says SCAN is currently working on a study for the Office of the
Privacy Commissioner (OPC) titled A Report on Camera Surveillance in
Canada. The report covers topics such as the emerging digitization of
CCTV equipment, the impact of shifting technological capabilities and
how those capabilities enable facial recognition technology. Part two
will analyze survey data collected between 2006 and 2008 regarding
public acceptance of video surveillance in Canada, how it relates to
that of other countries, the public’s knowledge of how video
surveillance works, and the level of trust in organizations that use
CCTV.

The report will also look at how camera operators perceive their work,
focus on certain kinds of subjects and respond emotionally to the
subjects they see. Specific examples of CCTV use, such as in taxi cabs
in Ottawa or planned implementation at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010,
will also be examined. A section on how television programs like Crime
Stoppers use CCTV will be included and the issues associated with the
media’s promotion of video surveillance as a crime-fighting tool will
be examined.


Lyon notes that although SCAN has received funding from the Office of
the Privacy Commissioner in the past, the group shouldn’t be
pigeon-holed as "anti-surveillance."

"We have no particular axe to grind," says Lyon. "We are committed to
evidence-based analysis of various kinds of surveillance and their
ethical evaluation."

Does CCTV deter crime?

Lyon points to an "ongoing tension" between the relatively high level
of public acceptance of CCTV cameras in public places, compared with
existing evidence regarding their efficiency in delivering what the
general public expects.

According to SCAN’s research, approximately 47 per cent of Canadians
believe CCTV is helpful in crime prevention. "But the evidence is mixed
at best, and weak at worst," Lyon says. While CCTV is fairly successful
in preventing petty property crimes in public parking lots, the
technology’s supporters are usually thinking more in terms of violent
crime prevention. In those situations there is less evidence that video
surveillance actually works, he says.

Highly publicized incidents tend to augment public perception that
video surveillance helps prevent crime. For example, in 1993, cameras
in a Liverpool, U.K., shopping centre caught three-year-old Jamie
Bulger being led away by the two 10-year-olds who eventually murdered
him. While the cameras helped solve the case, "it is less discussed
that the murders happened anyway, and the presence of the cameras did
not in any way reduce the risk (of the crime being committed)," says
Lyon.

SCAN researchers are not the only ones trying to get the facts
straight. In May 2008, detective chief inspector Mick Neville, head of
the Visual Images, Identifications and Detections Office at Scotland
Yard, cast doubt on the effectiveness of video surveillance when he
told attendees at a security conference in London that a Metropolitan
Police pilot project found only three per cent of street robberies in
the city were solved using security cameras.


Surveillance and privacy

SCAN has also been looking at the issue of privacy, namely how well the
public is being notified of CCTV’s use in a given area. In part one of
the organization’s most recent surveillance camera report, SCAN
researcher and University of Windsor associate professor of criminology
Randy Lippert examined how well the requirements laid out by federal
and provincial privacy laws regarding informed consent – necessary for
the collection of personal information – are fulfilled via signs
displaying a warning that the area is under surveillance.

"Even where it is in place, many pedestrians walk past open-street
camera surveillance signage without taking notice," Lippert wrote.
"Others may be unable to read the signage, but even those that do will
learn little about how, why or if their personal information is being
collected in that space. Signage appears to have not been well thought
out, with even less discussion about context-specific notification for
camera surveillance." The "rudimentary and incomplete" information
provided by the signage "falls far short of an ‘informed consent’
ideal," he says. If informed consent is in question, the sharing of
surveillance between private security companies and the police could be
problematic, concluded Lippert.

Where the cameras are now

Although organizations like SCAN are examining video surveillance with
a critical eye and other groups are outright opposing it, that hasn’t
stopped CCTV from being incorporated into several Canadian cities’
public safety and security strategies. In 1991, Sherbrooke, Que.,
became one of the first Canadian cities to install video surveillance
in a public place in the hopes of deterring delinquent behaviour –
although the single camera was eventually removed because it was found
to violate Quebec’s privacy legislation.

One open CCTV system that has stuck around is Sudbury’s Lion’s Eye in
the Sky, introduced in 1996 to monitor the city’s downtown area and
rail yard. According to an audit conducted in 2000 by consulting firm
KPMG, hired by Greater Sudbury’s Police Service,  "at least 300, and as
many as 500 robberies, assaults, thefts and other criminal offenses
have been deterred by the Lion’s Eye in the Sky project, saving as much
as $800,000 in direct monetary losses."


In southwestern Ontario, the City of London launched its downtown
security camera initiative in November 2001, following the
highly-publicized January 1999 stabbing death of 20-year-old Michael
Goldie-Ryder. According to a 2006 article written by SCAN researcher
Kevin Walby, the incident led to the formation of Friends Against
Senseless Endings (FASE), which helped raise a large chunk of the funds
needed to install the 16 cameras currently in place.

Corey Hill, manager of corporate security in London’s Corporate
Security & Emergency Management division, says there were three
major objectives behind the downtown camera project: deter crime and
anti-social behaviour in the core; improve police response times; and
increase the perception of safety.

"A big part of (the initiative) was probably perception," Hill said.
"The program provides a mechanism to monitor some of our busier and
more active intersections off-hours."


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