Surveillance industry responds to Bruce Schneier

Do cameras make us safer? Industry thought leaders offer their takes on the question


In a column on CNN.com and republished with permission on SecurityInfoWatch.com titled "Spy Cameras Won't Make Us Safer", security expert Bruce Schneier railed against the value of surveillance cameras. While SecurityInfoWatch.com is not sure when Schneier became an expert on physical security (his background is data encryption), he does make some very good points about lack of maintenance on cameras, lack of monitoring, and the fact that cameras are expensive. But he goes on to say that "the funds now spent on CCTV cameras would be far better spent on hiring and training police officers." As a student of the policing and security industries, I think Bruce's point is accurate in some cases, but not in every instance. Many times I've been told by police chiefs and security managers that those cameras extend their manpower significantly, and that even if they had more officers they still wouldn't get the same forensic evidence that the cameras provide.

So, with Schneier's jab at video surveillance being passed around the industry, we called upon a few opinionated persons to respond. Interestingly, the general consensus was that Schneier was mostly right in his analysis even though he sensationalized the essay for mass consumer media purposes. Of course, the sensationalizing may have been done by CNN's producers, who have to make a column on video surveillance as interesting as Jessica Simpson (Simpson was the topic of a competing headline on CNN's site when the Schneier column ran). Our respondents generally thought that Schneier was on the right track but that his conclusion that we should get rid of cameras and purely spend money on staffing was off-base. Here's what they had to say in response to Schneier's column:

Pat Fiel, former security chief for Washington, D.C., Public Schools, now with ADT Security Services:

I'm a firm believe that surveillance cameras are very effective if used properly. The key to a successful implementation is effective planning, a proper assessment, good positioning and set-up, budgeting, monitoring, staffing, education and training. Sure, they might not have stopped the killing [that Schneier referenced], but the cameras did what they were supposed to do, which is to serve as a forensic tool. The cameras are a deterrent, and unfortunately we don't always have 24-hour monitoring of most cameras, but they still are providing value.

A spy camera typically means a covert camera [Schneier's column headline specifically asked whether "spy cameras" make us safer], but I think we have to look at surveillance cameras in general. It's a 50-50 on whether they are a deterrent. I am a firm believer that cameras need to be overt. When you see the camera and know camera is looking at you, it can be a deterrent. I like domes so the bad guys know the camera is there but they can't see the eye of the camera and know exactly whether it's looking at them. But I absolutely believe cameras are effective at deterring crimes. During my time at the Washington, D.C., public schools, 90 percent of my crimes were reduced where we had put cameras in place.

One of the things the security industry has learned following Columbine and Virginia Tech is that cameras can be used to direct emergency responders, so they can go directly into a given situation. Columbine had cameras but they couldn't be accessed remotely, now we're often looking at those cameras remotely so they can be used to give the responders information – and that makes us safer. Cameras aren't here to replace manpower; they're here to be an assistant to your manpower.

Steve Lasky, editor-in-chief and publisher of Security Technology Executive magazine:

Any security technology is only as good as the procedures and policies your organization has in place. That being said, having a plan and a reason to deploy video surveillance will be the ultimate factor in its success or failure. To claim that video is a worthless deterrent is a myopic and uninformed statement. As video moves onto the corporate network and becomes more IP-driven, the benefits of an integrated video strategy will cut across all segments of enterprise risk mitigation, not just security.

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