Video surveillance devices have over the years captured some of the most defining moments in history. Whether it was the last few steps taken by the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger, or the haunting images of the 9/11 terrorist boarding their ill fated flights, video has often been the silent witness to both tragedy and triumph. It’s role in documenting historical events is beyond reproach.
But is video surveillance an effective tool when it comes to prosecuting criminal activity? There are many different opinions on this questions. Some may point to statistics which indicate that geographical areas with a significant surveillance presence are just as likely to have criminal activity as jurisdictions with less of a presence. Others will argue that a significant CCTV presence will curb criminal behavior and assist the authorities in collecting evidence and prosecuting crimes.
As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle of both arguments, but weighs more heavily in favor of it’s effectiveness in not only solving crimes, but also preventing crime. In fact, the question should really be ‘Is CCTV video surveillance an effective crime prevention tool’.
Video surveillance is more about deterrence than it is about evidence collection. Red light cameras do catch drivers in the act, but their role is much more about making drivers think twice before running a red light.
In a published 1991 study, CCTV surveillance in convenience stores showed promising results as a crime prevention tool. A sample of 81 stores were studied for 1 year prior and 1 year after the installation of CCTV camera surveillance systems. The number of robberies decreased by 53 percent after the first year. This represents the true value of CCTV security systems.
The UK has has more CCTV camera coverage than any other country. A recent study examined the effectiveness of UK security cameras as it pertains to crime prevention. The evaluations were carried out in city centers, public housing, public transport and car parks. 11 of 22 of these study cases indicated a reduction in the crime rate. CCTV is clearly an effective deterrence to criminal activity.
Video is also a useful tool for law enforcement agencies, but it must be noted that CCTV recordings cannot make use of audio information – if sound is recorded along with the video, the recording is then considered a wiretap and therefore falls under rules which may require a warrant. This is why police often make use of lip readers when trying to decipher the contents of surveillance video.
CCTV video is often used in police investigations. In Canada, over 70% of all bank robberies are captured by CCTV cameras. Additionally, close to 75% of all commercial crime investigations have made use of CCTV recordings. Commercial CCTV cameras have also been instrumental in helping to find missing persons. The effectiveness of the technology as an investigation tool is therefore also well established.
I believe most people are convinced of the effectiveness of video surveillance and may even feel a certain amount of comfort in knowing that it adds to their sense of personal safety. They understand that their chances of being a victim of crime are reduced when they find themselves in an area monitored with CCTV cameras.
If this is the case, then why is CCTV surveillance so controversial? Upon closer examination, concerns people have with CCTV security cameras tend to pertain to privacy issues as opposed to safety issues.
Many people fear the emergence of a ‘Big Brother’ society where your every move is recorded. This probably won’t happen. The overwhelming majority of CCTV cameras function in a passive fashion, recording events to be played back only in the event of a crime. Because of the considerable storage requirements needed to save video, most footage is only kept for short periods of time.
Because video is not perpetual in nature, it’s impact on tracking our daily activities is not sequential enough to warrant concerns over privacy. A bigger threat exist with location aware devices such as GPS trackers and cell phones. Imagine if people could track your every move in real time over the web. That is happening today and is a much bigger threat to our privacy.
In conclusion, CCTV surveillance technology is helping us document history in much the same way as books and photos have for thousands of years. Statistics clearly point to the effectiveness of the technology in crime prevention and investigation. It’s use will continue to be controversial with privacy advocates and civil libertarians.