Leaping into action, a mere month after the publication of our CCTV report, one Pauline Norstrom has written an article on behalf of the British Security Industry Association (BSIA) to give her tuppenceworth.
To be blunt, she did not like it one bit. Well, I expected something entirely different from Pauline, who is
the Director of Worldwide Marketing for CCTV specialist AD Group.
To get a sense of her perspective on this, here’s a helpful screen grab of her article, with some of their handy-around-the-heavily-surveilled-home products advertised to the right.
She says that
The very title of the campaign – Big Brother Watch – is a none too subtle clue to the approach it is taking.
Even a cursory glance at the document gives the game away
And the rest of the article shows that a cursory look is all she took. She states that
Although the report does go on to say that Big Brother Watch is 'not opposed to CCTV per se', this is followed by a selection of quotes regarding CCTV which have obviously been selected to portray CCTV in the worst possible light, backed by instances where apparently CCTV images were not of sufficient quality or CCTV systems were not operational.
Look. I’m not a Luddite. Technology has a role to play in law enforcement. We’re all happy when crime is solved by CCTV. But as I’ve pointed out before, the enormous expense of installation, maintenance, monitoring and storage of the imagery produced by them represents money taken from a finite pot of funds available to law enforcement that cannot be used in other ways. The sense of security gained from CCTV is frequently entirely false. Cameras often don’t work. When they do work, they're often not turned on. When they do work, and are on, they’re often pointing the wrong way during the course of whatever incident is causing concern. When they’re working, switched on and pointing the right way, footage is often “scrubbed” before an investigator requests it, because storage is expensive. When the camera is working, switched on, pointing the right way and the footage hasn’t been scrubbed, the quality of the imagery is often so low as to be unusable for investigations and certainly not good enough for court identification purposes.
It is for these reasons that the Metropolitan Police Force estimates that for every thousand cameras in London, one crime per year is solved – neutral, third-party, balanced information that Pauline naturally ignores. In a mutually exclusive, finite resources environment, the presence of those thousands of cameras on our streets means the absence of hundreds of actual police officers.
When a camera has been placed in location X, law enforcement’s resources flow away from X and towards Y. Often, as a result of this decision and the failures I've outlined here, a crime committed in X goes unsolved, with all the suffering and disappointment for victims that goes with that, because of the wholly false reliance that has been placed on those cameras.
All of those arguments are mounted without even a reference to privacy. Efficacy alone is enough to show up the faults of our CCTV network, the biggest in the world. But there are legitimate privacy concerns. People do feel uncomfortable with the (in principle) permanent retention of the images of innocent people by the state, which ought to treat us as innocent citizen subjects, free to go about our business without let or hindrance unless and until we do something wrong, rather than treat us as perpetual suspects. It’s a distortion of the primary aspects of our relationship with the state as free people to say otherwise.
So Pauline’s argument falls down on both practical and principled grounds. She stresses that some crime is solved by CCTV. This is true. But it ought not to be beyond the wit of someone in her position to consider the other side of that coin. The millions of man-hours wasted on maintaining cameras and poring without benefit over masses of CCTV footage cannot be portrayed in a neat anecdote, but the inefficacy of law enforcement spending its time and money doing so ought to be apparent – and the logical result of that, that many cases might have been solved if proper policing had been used during those finite man-hours instead, ought to be considered too.
Because it suits her to, Pauline commits the simple fallacy of considering the merit of solving the specific, small number of crimes she says can be solved by CCTV footage (and the potential of solving those which remain unsolved), without weighing against that undoubted merit the harm that comes from constantly monitoring millions of people living in this country entitled to live without being suspected as criminals, from the surveillance of society en masse without end. She tells us that these technologies have great utility for the police. But that is to state the obvious. I am sure that the expansion of these technologies even further, to the maximum degree possible, would indeed be “useful” to law enforcement. When the state gathers more information about everyone, the solving of crimes obviously becomes easier. But this isn’t a numbers game – it’s a question of the kind of country we want to live in.
To put it another way, her argument is effectively (1) this is useful to the police and (2) “nothing to hide, nothing to fear”. Well, it would be “useful” to monitor all speeches by having a police presence at every public meeting. If your event organisers have nothing to hide, they won’t mind that, will they? And it would be “useful” to monitor all conversations by having a police presence at every dinner table. If your family’s got nothing to hide, you won’t mind that, will you?
But despite all that, in a development that shocked us all, Pauline wasn’t convinced by the arguments in the report. So here are some more:
- The decision to install CCTCV on our streets is taken by a few people on a local council, hitherto without any scrutiny. The result is a haphazard series of patches of CCTV across the country, with wildly different coverage in different towns. Portsmouth has 10 times more CCTV than Plymouth, although the latter has a slightly larger population.
- The remarkably alarming "Internet Eyes" scheme offers the potential for more abuse as members of the public can spy on us through CCTV for rewards, or perhaps Pauline prefers to think of them as frequent spyer miles
- Further intrusions are arriving in the future, with the first installation of CCTV cameras in private homes in Croydon
- Privately held cameras are driven by policing failure – members of the public have been forced to adopt the cost and effort of part of police work ourselves
- CCTV often struggles to pick up much of anything at night
- It is true that, when offered CCTV on its own, people generally want it (though not always – as recently shown in Wycombe) (and some have been switched off, as in Skipton). But if offered the choice, people may choose more police on the beat instead, and might appreciate having a choice at all. But that might not appeal to BSIA.
As I say, I’m aghast that the payroll vote is against us, but somehow I’ll sleep tonight.
Actually, Pauline, how about a public debate on the issues..? You know where to find us
By Alex Deane