The security week that was: 05/09/08

Cameras aren't a fiasco

There seem to be two schools of thought within users of video surveillance. One group thinks the cameras are a useful tool for investigation purposes. The other group would agree with that presumption, but also believes the cameras serve as a deterrent. I think there might even be a third group of people who think that the old camera systems in place at many business that generate awful black-and-white images to worn-out VCR tapes are neither good for investigations nor serving as a deterrent...but that final group is thinking about a specific segment of poorly installed and un-serviced camera systems.

I'm probably somewhere in between those first two camps. I certainly agree that video surveillance, when properly installed and maintained, is a wonderful tool for investigations. I'm a little bit less sure about deterrence. With so many cameras hidden up in the ceilings or crammed in between overhead product racks at C-stores, I sometimes wonder how aware the general public is of their presence. What's more, signs which indicate "premises recorded by video surveillance" seem quite rare compared to the number of cameras I can spot. And finally, many criminals seem to recognize that our law enforcement community is often over-tasked and under-staffed and doesn't have the time to fully investigate some crimes where marginal video surveillance images may have been captured.

Over in England, at a discussion of the UK's investment in video surveillance, a detective chief inspector called the country's investment in municipal video surveillance "an utter fiasco." Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville said, "It's been an utter fiasco... There's no fear of CCTV. Why don't people fear it? (They think) the cameras are not working." Neville seems to be in the camp that believes cameras should be a deterent, and to me, that's asking a lot of a fairly simple device.

There were lots of retorts, even from other British police inspectors saying the Neville was wrong, but before we discount entirely what Neville said, let's recognize that when citizens' tax rolls spend billions of pounds on video surveillance, they can expect a return on their investment. Neville, who leads the visual images unit at New Scotland Yard, said that video footage had only helped solve 3 percent of crimes. Considering that the UK is estimated to have 4.2 million installed surveillance cameras, it does seem relevant that there is publicly spoken outcry about the value of these systems.

That said, as the editor for SecurityInfoWatch.com, I have access to a variety of news feeds from around the world. And to be honest, there's rarely a week that goes by when some UK city's newspaper decries the fact that a serious incident occurs but that the cameras weren't working. So, I have to agree with Neville's statement that if we expect a deterring effect from the cameras, then they have to work. And the same holds true for the value of investigation, because even a non-working camera might deter someone, but a non-working camera system certainly isn't going to provide evidence.

At least the British Security Industry Association is taking note. In a press release they issued after Neville's comments, they said:

"CCTV is playing a valuable part in crime prevention and detection in this country. However, there is a need for a more cohesive and holistic approach by CCTV stakeholders to ensure that the benefits of advancing technology are utilised effectively. This is already being undertaken in the form of the National CCTV Strategy, in which the BSIA is already heavily involved. CCTV has evolved over a number of years and in some cases the management of the technology has taken place on an adhoc basis with systems owned by both the public sector and private companies. This evolution has meant that there have been areas of disconnect across government agencies. However, now this issue has been recognised by the authorities and work is being undertaken to ensure that CCTV systems are used - both proactively to deter crime and more effectively to gather vital evidence - in a more structured way."

Translate that to: We know the technology can be beneficial, but there does need to be more focus on making sure the systems are working and are integrated for maximum effect. Pauline Norstrom, who authored that quote, is one of the movers-and-shakers of European security (she's worldwide head of marketing for AD Group's Dedicated Micros and very actively involved in organizations creating security/surveillance standards. If you're at IFSEC next week, she'll be part of a Tuesday lunchtime debate on CCTV effectiveness).

Pauline is right on here, but I'm going take a much more basic angle with my own conclusion. If security people, business people and other camera users expect their cameras to have an influence on crime, then it's not enough to plug-and-forget. Create a service contract. Pay for a monthly or bi-monthly video system check-up. Most cameras aren't being maintained by a dedicated staff and so we have tended to plug-and-forget. That has to change.

Additionally, when cameras are publicly installed as a means to catch littering smokers or are announced that they will be monitored by volunteers (both these stories are real stories from the UK!), then what level of deterrence can we expect from the real criminal population?

P.S. Despite what Neville said this last week and the surrounding hub-bub, this is not a particularly new story. I had to dig back in my archives to a story from February 2005 when a study from Britain's Home Office found little benefit from camera systems and was then mulling the idea of not funding such systems any more. Personally, I think we all know that video surveillance works. It's not a panacea, but then neither was an alarm system, a fire system or a good strong chain link fence. Done properly and layered together, however, we may just get there.

Finally, we close with a look at our most read stories of the week:

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