Negotiating (In)visibilities

There’s an interesting new research network called ‘Negotiating (In)visibilies‘, one of those fascinating interdisciplinary collaborations (or collisions) that spans architcture, urban studies, cultural studies, arts and information (and probably). I’ve been asked to be an advisor and will also be giving one of the keynotes at what looks to be a really great opening confererence in Copenhagen, February 1-2 2012. Should be fun!

London Riots and Video Surveillance, pt.1

 A really interesting map on the website of the US monthly, The Atlantic, illustrating the relationship between density of video surveillance cameras (CCTV) and recent incidence of rioting in London. There are many things one can get even from a simple map like this. It’s worth noting in particular that Wandsworth and Harringey are the residential boroughs with the highest concentration of CCTV, and have been hit by rioting. There are also places with both greater and less than average density of CCTV which have not had rioting.
Whilst you have to be careful not to mistake correlation for causality, and bearing in mind that this is not a statistically tested verdict, the main tentative conclusion one can draw is that there seems to be no relationship between the presence and density of CCTV and the occurence of rioting. This might seem like  a fairly weak statement, but it is yet more evidence that CCTV has little deterrent effect on crime of this sort (and of course, the rioting is not only explicable as ‘crime’ anyway).

What’s Wrong with Video Surveillance?

Occasionally, you need to simplify and clarify. Someone asked me the other day, “so, what’s wrong with CCTV anyway?” Here was my quick answer.*

1. Does CCTV prevent crime?

The prevention of crime was the main rationale for CCTV in Britain back in the early days in the 1990s, and this rationale is still the main one currently in the USA…

But meta-evaluation of valid studies of CCTV by Welsh and Farrington, recently published as Making Places Safer by OUP, shows the following: that studies can only show a positive correlation between reduction in rates of crime and the installation and operation of CCTV in limited situations, namely in car parks and the like. This is because car theft is a more rational form of crime (the perpetrators are often professional criminals and they do not want to get caught). Most crime, especially street crime and violence is not so rational. People do not generally look up in their violent drunken haze and think ‘ooh, there’s a camera, better not kick this guy’s head in’.

According to Martin Gill and co.’s work evaluating 14 schemes across the UK, only 1 resulted in a clear reduction in crime over the longer term. CCTV can have temporary effects in reducing crime (and police studies always seem to be done in these early months and hence are very misleading), but over the years after installation, unless other things are done, the crime will return to similar levels. It’s those other things that are done – more community volunteers, neighbourhood watch schemes, better street lighting, economic regeneration – that make the difference to crime rates. People who think they ‘know’ it’s down to CCTV are just looking at A and B and thinking changes to A must be a result of B, without considering C, D and E…

What can be useful in this regard, knowing that temporary reductions can be made, is to use CCTV in targeted, temporary and flexible manner – i.e. if you are going to have video surveillance at all, make it moveable and used to target specific areas where there have been sudden increases in crime.

So, so much for prevention…

2. What about solving crime? Surely CCTV gives us lots of evidence?

Well, not as much as you might think. The biggest study of street robbery and CCTV in London (the city with the highest density of cameras in Europe), commissioned by the Metropolitan Police, showed that only 3% of such crimes were solved using CCTV . And, figures released in 2007 through Freedom of Information Act requests, showed that 80% of crime in London still goes unsolved even with this infrastructure.

3. But at least someone’s looking out for us – right?

Studies of control rooms show that the professionalism and seriousness of operators is increasing but there is still evidence that more time is spent on anti-social behaviour and dealing with ‘unwanted’ people than the potential for serious crime, particularly in shopping districts. Who is watched and why is also complicated by family and social connections, especially in smaller towns. CCTV systems are also increasingly difficult to watch as the numbers of cameras and screens increase; there aren’t enough staff, however well-trained they are, to do a really efficient job in most cases and computer analytics are not good enough (yet).

In addition, there is the growing issue of cost. There were originally subsidies for installing CCTV in Britain in the 1990s, but running costs, maintenance and replacement have to be covered by the operators (usually Local Authorities) and there is an ongoing row going on behind the scenes between LAs and police in the UK about who pays for it.

Now costs are starting to bite, exacerbated by recession and new Tory efficiency savings, some local authorities have even started to either combine their monitoring with others – meaning even more distant and less efficient watching and in some cases have stopped watching the cameras live at all (in many countries this dead recording is normal anyway).

4. What about the Courts?

The only undoubtedly positive effect seems to be that it encourages criminals who are caught to confess and plead guilty, which saves court costs and time – although of course, guilty pleas mean that the criminals are punished less and out of prison quicker (if they go in at all), which might be felt not to be an advantage by some!


Video Surveillance, particularly fixed CCTV,  is expensive, inefficient and has all kinds of negative social side-effects. Public money would be better spent on improved street lighting, schemes for community involvement and economic regeneration. CCTV certainly isn’t a ‘Panopticon’ because actually it doesn’t actually ‘see’ very well at all nor does it actually seem to alter behaviour as much as states would like in itself, but it does appear to contribute to the decline of social trust and decreasing personal responsibility, which are partly at least to blame for the problems CCTV is supposed to solve, and all of which would be more likely to increase with other solutions.

*In most ways, this answer is not really ‘mine’ – it’s the distillation of many other people’s work, some of whom are mentioned here, some of whom like Clive Norris, Mike McCahill, Will Webster, Pete Fussey and Gavin Smith, are not… anyway, they know who they are! Thank-you all…

Real-world invisibility a step closer?

Following news the other day of real-time video surveillance erasure capabilities, an even more potent way of vanishing from the eye of surveillance is being reported on by the BBC this week (although the BBC feels the add to this rather startling science story with references to a derivative but popular children’s fantasy series). For the more scientifically literate who want to avoid the drivel, you can go straight to the research paper here.

Progress is apparently being made on making more flexible ‘metamaterials’, that is materials that can bend light around them, rendering them effectively invisible. Up until recently such materials had been inflexible, but flexibility means that a wider range of applications are possible.

Anyway, it gives me a good excuse to put up another image from the fantastic Dutch artist, Desiree Palmen, who takes a rather more painstakingly old-skool approach to invisibility.

Eye See You

An interesting health story carried by the BBC today made me think, as usual, of the other possible surveillance implications. The story is about a new implant that has been developed to aid people with certain kinds of visual disorders. Effectively a digital processor deals with signals passing into the eye and communicates with the brain. This may indeed be a breakthrough for those people, but what it also made me think is how this might be adapted to turn a person into a covert ‘walking camera’: the unit is powered by a battery worn externally by the ear, and this could look like a hearing aid or a music player etc. The wireless connection required to send these internal signals elsewhere is (relatively speaking) no big deal…

This would be a step beyond (or away from) the open and visible eye-cameras employed by Eyetap’s Steve Mann or more recently Rob Spence, who lost an eye and replaced it with an eyeball camera.