Is the CCTV experiment in the United Kingdom coming to a close?
That's the story the BBC is giving us this week.
The UK has one of the largest CCTV networks in the world. But as cash-strapped councils look for cost-saving measures, the effectiveness of public CCTV is under scrutiny.We've covered the British CCTV network before: Back in 2009 I related from personal experience that I was able to piss on the sidewalk without the dreaded CCTV network stopping me at the border. I discussed how CCTV was considered a fiasco in 2008. What I hadn't mentioned at the time was the craziest part about my trip to London: you may have seen the ridiculous number of CCTV cameras (32 within 200 yards) around George Orwell's old London apartment. I've personally sat in Orwell's favourite pub: Compton Arms, Islington. Guess what was right above my table looking down at me while I had a pint? That's right, another CCTV camera. The telescreens were literally coming for you, George.
And now CCTV may be on its way out. The reason? Turns out its ridiculously expensive, for one...
Other areas are scaling back. Birmingham's 250 CCTV cameras will no longer be monitored around the clock and CCTV managers across the country face redundancy.Additionally, the effectiveness is basically zero and those who claim otherwise pick the most ludicrous examples:
Police are under similar financial strain. Thames Valley Police could reduce its CCTV funding for the city from £225,000 annually, to as little as £50,000 by 2018.
A Freedom of Information request by Labour MP Gloria de Piero in March 2013, found that one in five councils had cut the number of CCTV cameras on the streets since the last election.
Supporters of CCTV point to the success of cameras in identifying suspects in high-profile cases, such as Robert Thompson and Jon Venables in the murder of toddler James Bulger, the Boston Marathon bombing, the London 7 July 2005 attacks and the 2011 UK riots. CCTV was crucial in the hunt for the Charlie Hebdo attackers.Really? Really? The Bulger case is probably the strongest argument, a woman recognized one of the boys from a slightly enhanced but grainy CCTV image. Even then, most of the CCTV coverage was useless and even misled detectives as to the ages of the perpetrators. As for the other examples, the 2011 Vancouver riots were able to identify people based on just good old cameras operated by the general public, so I'm not sure how the Brits can think CCTV is what saved their bacon that same year. The other two examples are in fact massive failures of wasting money on CCTV services. The tube bombings and the Charlie Hedbo attacks aren't sneaky missions by men wanting to remain in the shadows. The tube bomber sent his videotape of his 'confession' and his pride at carrying out the attacks to al-Jazeera while the Charlie Hedbo killers were identifying quickly when they left their ID in the car: though it turned out that at least Amedy Coulibaly had also recorded a video for distribution proclaiming his name.
In what universe is CCTV to be credited for the law enforcement reaction to these attacks? Good working identifying these guys who either:
a) already were busy proudly identifying themselves for their cause
b) were already identified by methods which have been available to investigators for decades
As for the more humdrum examples of CCTV, when both the Daily Mail and The Guardian say its ineffective, it's worth a listen (even though The Guardian is courtesy of certified idiot Cory Doctorow). If the defenders get to point to Charlie Hedbo as a positive example of CCTV, surely its not unfair that I bring up vandalism of Christmas trees in Oswaldthistle (yes, that's a real place name), where specific trees have been continually targeted and the CCTV system setup directly across the road to catch them has continually failed to do so. How about this very helpful CCTV footage which shows a man covering his face and hands before robbing a parkade in Westminster (the heart of London), preventing any identification? Or police officers not even bothering to use the CCTV camera footage that may be available (let alone other methods like taking fingerprints or collecting evidence, can we use that to discredit the 'value' of expensive CCTV systems? (If they aren't going to be used, even if they were 100% effective when used, why spend the money?) What about the twin hydras of failures of policing in Britain, where CCTV footage is withheld for months in the case of a disappearing man, and then his father is arrested for daring to complain about it?
Britain may mourn the "death of CCTV". It's not going to be a full-out death, as many areas of property crime do benefit from having specific video surveillance. But as budgets tighten and the failure of CCTV to do what it was promised to do becomes more and more apparent, perhaps one day you can have a quiet private drink at Compton Arms again.