Under Surveillance – CCTV Cameras In North America

Last month, a report on the use of CCTV was published in Washington Post. It seems as though there is a spreading of CCTV cameras throughout North America, so ZeroPaid spoke to the Open Rights Group for their interpretation of the CCTV camera.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

The generic security camera has been around for years now. The private sector has made use of these cameras – namely stores that sell products – to stop activities like shop-lifting, vandalism and other forms of crime within the store setting. Today in North America, the security camera on the premises of a store or a house can be an acceptable thing – yet, what about in public places?

One of the first countries in the North Western hemisphere has made use of the CCTV camera in public places on a wide scale is Britain. The idea is to reduce crime, but some might say that the use of such cameras on a large scale encroaches on privacy. It has left many to wonder why now, every movement must be monitored. It is impossible to go from one end of London to the other without being seen in these cameras. For some, the thought of that type of society can send a chill down the spinal chord. So has the use of CCTV cameras spread?

The answer is yes. The Washington Post reported that 73 cameras went live. The report also noted:

Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said she thought the department wasn’t making the most of the technology and was missing opportunities to more quickly solve crimes — or even stop them in progress. “I thought, ‘Why the heck aren’t we watching them?’ ” Lanier said.

And so, for about 40 hours a week, a small team of officers in the department’s Joint Operations Command Center watches the live feeds from 10 to 15 of the cameras. They choose locations based on the latest crime trends — focusing, for example, on areas in Southeast Washington beset by gun violence.

The District is following cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, where police have actively monitored live camera scenes for years.

The United States isn’t alone in North America. Last year, an uproar happened over the plans of installing 12,000 CCTV cameras in Toronto, Canada – in the transit network to be more precise.

What does it all mean? Are several first world countries planning on just going into an Orwellian police state with privacy being banished if you go out in public or is it simply a case of protecting civilians from crime? ZeroPaid decided to try and find the answers from the Open Rights Group, a civil liberties organization based in Britain to find out more information.

“The Open Rights Group have done very little work on CCTV in our short history.” Becky Hogge told ZeroPaid, “For some deeper study of the issues, and especially in terms of the comparisons you are seeking to make with US practice I would direct you to Liberty’s recent report ‘Overlooked: Surveillance and personal privacy in Britain’ which has an excellent chapter (“Visual Surveillance”) on CCTV, together with some key recommendations with which we are broadly in support.”

The report contains a number of interesting points:

The experience of visual surveillance may have an impact on individuals: having a chilling effect on their willingness to take part in public activities, or behave freely in, or enter spaces covered by CCTV cameras. The presence of a large number of cameras, the sense of being continuously under surveillance, increases the risk of this reaction. The technical capacity of a scheme would also raise potential privacy issues if it recorded sound, for example, or allowed camera operators to speak to passers-by through loudspeakers. There is a need for clarity over the purpose and scope of individual schemes, to avoid imposing unnecessary restrictions on behaviour, something in which everyone has a common interest. Unnecessary surveillance may also have an adverse impact on freedom of movement.

Images of individuals captured by cameras may amount to ‘personal data’,
and the actions of searching and cross-referencing images with other information for the purpose of identification of an individual will amount to ‘personal data processing’

Most important is the requirement for fair and lawful processing; this requires that data be processed for limited purposes and not in a manner incompatible with those purposes. This principle is behind requirements for signage and a range of control room practices in public visual surveillance systems. The processor of images (whether the public body itself or a security company contractor) is responsible for ensuring that processing is carried out lawfully.

In other words, it’s not only a simple question of whether or not these actions would have an adverse impact on privacy as well as freedom of movement, but would the capturing, recording and identification of someone captured through a CCTV camera may count as the processing of personal data – not to mention if there is a system of oversight in place.

The organization that conducted the survey also notes, “There is one CCTV camera for every 14 people in the UK. If you live in London you are likely to be on cameras 300 times a day.”

So, naturally, London can prove to be an excellent city to look at when one has questions regarding CCTV cameras – a city that can be known for having the “ring of steel”. It appears that they also have an FAQ on CCTV cameras. Here’s a few interesting notes from the FAQ:

Strathclyde police in Scotland recently claimed a 75 per cent drop in crime following the installation of a £130,000 closed circuit TV system in Airdrie. Not only are people delighted because they are no longer afraid to go out shopping, say local police, but even criminals welcome the chance to prove their innocence by calling on evidence from the cameras.

The logic, and the statistics, are superficially impressive, but some analysts are not convinced. In a report to the Scottish Office on the impact of CCTV, Jason Ditton, Director of the Scottish Centre for Criminology, argued that many claims of crime reduction are little more than fantasy. “All (evaluations and statistics) we have seen so far are wholly unreliable”, The British Journal of Criminology went further by describing the statistics as “….post hoc shoestring efforts by the untrained and self interested practitioner”

What the public thinks of CCTV:

The extent of concern was highlighted by the outcome that more than fifty per cent of people felt neither government nor private security firms should be allowed to make decisions to allow the installation of CCTV in public places. 72 per cent agreed “these cameras could easily be abused and used by the wrong people”. 39 per cent felt that people who are in control of these systems cold not be “completely trusted to use them only for the public good”. 37 per cent felt that “in the future, cameras will be used by the government to control people”. While this response could be interpreted a number of ways, it goes to the heart of the privacy and civil rights dilemma. More than one respondent in ten believed that CCTV cameras should be banned.

In short, CCTV cameras could merely displace crime, not eliminate it. Statistics could be skewed to be in favor of those who want to put more cameras in place around various cities, and there is underlying concern for civil rights overall. The debate has not ended on whether or not it actually reduces crime at all and, above all, such systems are rather expensive to begin with.

Interestingly enough, probably the best way to summarize the debate is with what Cory Doctorow has said on a number of occasions, “Technology giveth and technology taketh away.”

Further Reading: Liberty’s page on CCTV Cameras.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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