Does Technology Really ‘Secure’ a City?

It’s time we prove the true impact of video surveillance on crime prevention


As a security professional, your mailbox probably fills up every day with offers of security conferences of every stripe, podcasts, webcasts, free-to-read whitepapers and regional meetings. I am no different, in fact, I watch my Twitter feed as it carries many of the same marketing and training overtures.

One e-mail I started getting about a year ago caught my attention: Secured Cities. I was curious regarding the nature of a “secure city” so I clicked on the link. I found these were regional conferences focused on municipal video surveillance. As I dug a bit further, I found they were sponsored by the security experts who put out this magazine. The riddle of how I got on the mailing list was solved!

I can see where video surveillance is a critical element of security management for municipalities. The technology works in much the same way as full packet capture and analysis tools work in the information security arena. The video can be used for analysis, or also be used to record and prosecute criminals caught “on tape” — a term coined in the 70s around then-current technology.

Video surveillance fills an interesting niche in a physical security program. Effective programs must encompass both preventive and remedial elements — you need to prevent what you cannot detect, and detect what you cannot prevent. Preventive security tools and processes help control the number of events you must respond to, and remedial security, such as video, identifies the events that require intervention, and can also help prioritize response.

After pondering the use of video surveillance, I spent a few minutes musing over the word ‘secured.’ I asked myself what would it mean to have a ‘secured’ city, and would I want to live in one? As I pondered the uses of video surveillance, I asked myself how this technology can best be used effectively while avoiding the Big Brother overtones it evokes. The key security issue is, then, what impact does video surveillance have on crime? How can the expense be justified in light of its risk mitigation capabilities?

Before proceeding further with this thought process, it is important to look at all the elements that comprise a comprehensive video surveillance system. In order for a video surveillance system to have any credible risk mitigation capabilities, such a system needs to monitor and then be able to react to security-relevant events. Additionally, the most expensive components are not the cameras themselves, but the requisite network infrastructure and IT systems that support the cameras as well as the onerous (read: expensive) storage requirements. You need people and computer technology to monitor, operate, and maintain the system, and some type of legislative and policy oversight to define how it can by legally used.

In other words, a video surveillance system graphically demonstrates the hierarchical dependency of safeguards. If you have a technology-based security “solution,” it must be supported by policies as well as people. Too often I see security practitioners who will outline, the costs to purchase and install technology while either unwittingly or willfully sidestepping these other significant resource requirements. Acquisition and installation are just table stakes. The real costs are in ongoing operations and maintenance.

Once you have real-time video, how do you lash it up to the broader ‘secure city’ program? Are sworn law enforcement types staring into monitors at all times? Do you automate a good portion of the analysis? Is it used to inform and deploy rapid-response teams? Or do you simply retain imagery for use in remedial security activities such as legal proceedings?

I did some more internet research, and found studies, opinions and articles about the efficacy of video surveillance systems. No surprise that much of the data came from the United Kingdom: a country leading the way in the deployment of this technology with more cameras per capita than any other city in Europe, and possibly the world. Interestingly, there is almost no empirical evidence regarding how crime is affected by this technology.

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