Video surveillance industry can’t ignore social, ethical challenges

Recent UK riots prove value of technology, but privacy concerns remain


In Europe, there has been a steadily growing campaign during the last five years to restrict the use of video surveillance in public areas. It has been based on the assumption that it infringes on the privacy and liberties of citizens.

Since the August riots in major cities in the UK, "Big Brother Watch" has been silent because many of the million-plus CCTV cameras in the UK played a pivotal role in bringing about swift justice to the perpetrators. This will act as a strong deterrent to others.

The Metropolitan Police confirmed that nearly 3,300 offences have been reported so far following the outbreak of disorder across London, and that 1,875 people have been charged in London alone. The Force had around 20,000 hours of CCTV footage to trawl through and it is expected that this will increase as the investigation progresses.

Not even the most die-hard supporter of video surveillance lays claim that it will stop terrorist attacks, riots and murder on our streets, but it can prevent and mitigate its impact as recent events have proven.

In the UK, support for the use of CCTV appeared to be falling off, but we now expect a resurgence of interest in how its application can be improved through the latest technology.

Members of the British Security Industry Association (BSIA) have already reported an increase in requests for security as a result of the riots that have affected the country this week. They claim that "CCTV systems, already a popular security measure to assist before, during and after attacks and intrusions, are also becoming an essential tool in the identification of the culprits of this week's violence."

However we should not ignore the social and ethical challenges facing the surveillance industry; they are real. So it was interesting to read this week that Reading University has unveiled plans to lead a new €5.3m European Union funded research center that will examine the social and ethical challenges the surveillance industry faces.

One of the key areas it will look at is the possibility of integrating video analysis and context information to provide privacy-awareness filtering at the camera end. The cameras would be taught to spot and record only people or events of potential interest to organizations such as the police. It would make it particularly useful when having to examine footage from a large number of cameras during live situations, such as the recent riots.

In the USA, as our soon to be released study, "The Physical Security Business in 2011," shows in the last three years there has been a rapid increase in video surveillance based on the latest IP networking technologies.

At this time, the major obstacle to its implementation is limited funding, but this is being overcome through public-private partnerships funding. In the last 18 months, hundreds of communities have installed video surveillance schemes. To ensure that this momentum continues, attention needs to be given to ensure that privacy awareness filtering is provided for. Otherwise this precious high growth application will not reach its zenith.