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FAQs about Camera Surveillance

1. Does camera surveillance deter crime?
2. Does camera surveillance displace crime?
3. Do the results of camera surveillance justify their cost?
4. Is camera surveillance foolproof?
5. Can camera surveillance be used for racial profiling?
6. Who is accountable for surveillance cameras?
7. Who benefits from camera surveillance deployment?
8. Does camera surveillance threaten privacy and civil liberties?

1. Does camera surveillance deter crime?

A major argument in favour of implementing camera surveillance is its assumed deterrent effect. Despite claims by police, private security and camera technology companies, deterrence has not been proven. There may well be more evidence that cameras have little to no deterrent effect, since crime rates and other indicators used to measure deterrence fluctuate greatly after camera surveillance installation. At best, deterrence can be achieved only in select locations like parking garages. A University of Leicester report from 2005 showed camera surveillance decreased vehicle theft from parking garages but did little to deter shoplifting or other activities in city streets and open areas. In August of 2007, municipal politicians in London UK lamented the city’s many cameras were not helping to reduce crime. A New York housing complex with over two hundred cameras failed to stop a violent rape in March 2008. Current evidence thus suggests that cameras typically fail to deter activities that people fear most, like bombings and beatings, and are useful only in prosecutions if footage can establish guilt. If those who desire camera surveillance in particular areas cannot generate a specific rationale for use, cameras are not the greatest option because at best they will provide mixed results and at worst will have little to no impact.

2. Does camera surveillance displace crime?

A more likely consequence of camera surveillance is that crime and undesirable conduct are displaced into neighbouring areas once cameras are installed in a target location. Statistics are rarely kept on displacement, and it is hard to account for in statistical analyses. When claims are made about deterrent effects they may be a result of displacement. Whether in a downtown location or on a university campus, cameras push targeted activities out of sight. In San Francisco, a study by the City and the University of California Berkeley found violent crime decreased within 250 metres of ‘open-street’ surveillance cameras, but increased beyond 250 metres. Sometimes cameras are used by police and private security precisely because of the displacement effect, which then invites new cameras to be set up elsewhere while neither the problematic activity nor its root causes are addressed.

3. Do the results of camera surveillance justify their cost?

Another argument often brought up in favour of installing cameras is that cameras are cheaper than putting more police on the beat, pursuing community policing initiatives, or hiring security guards. Several municipalities in Canada and the United States are being spurred towards camera implementation by federal counter-terrorism funding. Again, claims concerning cost-effectiveness are unfounded, though there is evidence that some cities have abandoned their ‘open-street’ camera systems over time because of cost. Besides the cost of the cameras themselves, there are many on-going expenditures necessary to keep a camera system operational. Cost of wiring, renovations, maintenance, upgrades, not to mention personnel supervision and training costs, including training and supervision, to operate the cameras, is continuous. Often these expenditures are not forecast in preliminary budgets, leaving taxpayers holding the bag when unexpected bills arrive. Cheaper alternatives like increased lighting on public streets and better training of security staff in retail stores have been argued to work as well or better. If cameras fail to accomplish their objective, the high costs cannot be justified.

4. Is camera surveillance foolproof?

Some in the security and technology sector claim cameras can achieve law enforcement or order maintenance goals more efficiently than public police or private security guards. Yet there are many examples of camera systems being discontinued or dismantled because of technological failure. For example, there were 168 technical failures with the camera system in London (Ontario) between 2001 and 2003. Technology is not fool proof. Nor is the supply of labour to operate the cameras, since sudden labour disputes and staffing problems can also disrupt surveillance activities for long periods.

5. Can camera surveillance be used for racial profiling?

Academic studies in the UK and Canada have documented the tendency towards racialized profiling by camera system operators. Cameras are used to target specific minority groups, especially Black and Aboriginal peoples, who are imagined to pose a greater threat than others. Street cameras have likewise been touted as effective tools in dealing with homelessness. In the case of homelessness, cameras may well increase criminalization and the local jail population. None of the known causes of homelessness - poverty, lack of social housing, etc. - are addressed by camera surveillance. Decisions about where to place camera systems can reflect profiling mentalities. Public housing zones in poorer, racialized neighbourhoods are increasingly targeted by camera surveillance schemes. It has also been shown that most camera operators are male and that cameras are sometimes used for inappropriate personal voyeuristic purposes independent of the camera system’s security aims.

6. Who is accountable for surveillance cameras?

A major issue with camera surveillance schemes is who decides to purchase and install the cameras. Studies in Canada show that camera surveillance programs have been implemented without or before public consultation. When public consultation does occur, it is aimed at managing public reputation of the groups responsible for implementing the cameras. For example, the City of Hamilton (Ontario) bought a camera system and made plans for the installation (even some of the wiring was completed) before public meetings were announced. Two Ontario Universities - Carleton University in Ottawa and the University of Windsor - blanketed their campuses with new surveillance cameras in the summer 2008 without notice or discussion with students, faculty or other campus users. Lack of accountability is a common theme when it comes to camera surveillance.

7. Who benefits from camera surveillance deployment?

Many camera technology corporations who provide video surveillance systems have ties to military and high-tech sectors. In the UK, billions of sterling pounds have been spent on the installation and maintenance of camera schemes since 1994. If we accept that cameras provide only a negligible deterrent effect and are prone to technical failure we can understand the economic profit motive behind installation of surveillance camera systems. Cameras appear to be less a guarantor of security and more a commodity aimed to generate profit for private security companies and camera manufacturers. Debates around fear of crime and public safety only fuel the camera surveillance industry. One could argue communities benefit from camera installation if fear of crime is reduced, but this result has never been substantiated.

8. Does camera surveillance threaten privacy and civil liberties?

Some cameras are already powerful enough to read cell phone text messages from 250 metres away. Newer cameras – especially those used in airports and by police in investigations – are equipped with infrared and other sensor technologies that can literally “see” through walls, clothes and flesh. As these technologies become more integrated with existing camera systems, new legal precedents are set for fair information practices. It is these technologies, infiltrating barriers that traditionally protected private realms, which threaten privacy and civil liberties the most. Such technologies challenge conventional understandings of “public” and “private” in current privacy legislations. Both publicly and privately-run cameras in Canada have recently been shown to violate privacy legislation, but, again, emergent technologies that “see” through visibility barriers may present a challenge to existing legislation expectations of privacy. Two other issues are important. First, increasingly camera systems are being integrated, so that more collected information is consolidated in ways that make it difficult to determine who is operating what cameras or what information is being retained. Second, rules about public police access to camera footage vary from province to province (and are easily abused), so concerns have been raised about unwarranted access to personal information and an increase in false arrests.

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