Poll claims 96% of US citizens support video surveillance

A Harris online poll of 2416 adult US citizens, conducted between May 28th and June 1st, 2009, has found a 96% rate of support for federal government video surveillance in ‘specific public places’, according to Reuters.

Further statistics from the survey include an 80% rate of support for ‘any available measures’ to protect citizens in a terrorist attack, and 54% supporting the US of federal stimulus funding for video surveillance. As the press release notes, public support appears to be totally detached from the evidence we have about the limited effectiveness of video surveillance – something is (quite literally) being seen to be done, and this is what appears to matter. Video surveillance is culturally engrained, even expected, as a result of two decades of movies and TV shows which use surveillance as a  theme (from programs like Cops to ‘realityTV’). So in many ways such a result is not altogether surprising.

The poll appears to have been commissioned as part of a PR campaign by an advanced ‘intelligent video surveillance’ company, which has a clearly stated commercial interest, which makes one wonder exactly how the questions were phrased, and how they were asked. The word ‘terrorism’ is mentioned a lot, and I expect there would be a great deal of difference in responses to a similar question that did not mention terrorism (or indeed did not mention the supposed purpose at all), and indeed a survey of people who had read a summary of available research on CCTV would probably once again, result in a different percentage (as economic experiments with ‘willingness to pay’ methods of valuing policy decisions have shown, informed participants make different judgements). I will try to get hold of the raw figures to take a deeper look…

Nations stop tracking H1N1 cases

The Associated Press is reporting that many nations, in particular the USA, have changed their surveillance methods for keeping track of Swine Flue (H1N1), and are no longer counting confirmed cases. The justification for this is that the confirmed cases count was already massively underestimating the numbers affected, and in any case, it is no longer useful once the disease hits a certain proportion of the population. This may be true on a whole population level, but the move away from counting cases means that changes in particular populations and areas below subnational level are less observable – and this is a problem if the disease is affecting some groups and places more than others. It might for example be crucial to deciding who and where receives vaccinations, for example. There is also the added complication of budget cuts in local government surveillance resulting from the recession. As with many kinds of caring surveillance, one key question is not whether the surveillance is perfectly accurate, but whether the surveillance is ‘good enough’ for the purpose for which it is intended, and in the case of diseases, this is sometime a tricky thing to determine.

So are there better ways of doing it? Some private companies certainly think so. As I have reported before, Google and others reckon that online disease tracking systems will be vital in the future, so much so that Google in particular has gone rather over the top in its claims about what would happen if access to the data it used for these systems were restricted…

Google: ‘give us data or you could die!’

I’ve been keeping a bit of an eye on the way that online systems are being used to map disease spread, including by Google. What I didn’t anticipate is that Google would use this as a kind of emotional blackmail to persuade governments to allow them as much data as they like for as long as possible.

Arguing against the European Commission’s proposal that Google should have to delete personal data after 6 months, Larry Page claims that to do so would be “in direct conflict with being able to map pandemics” and that without this the “more likely we all are to die.”

Google talk a lot of sense sometimes –  I was very impressed with their Privacy counsel, Richard Fleischer, at a meeting I was at the other week – and in many ways they are now an intimate part of the daily lives of millions of people, but this kind of overwrought emotionalism does them no favours and belies their moto, ‘don’t be evil’.

(again, thanks to Seda Gurses for finding this)

Contact Point goes live

The controversial new central database of all children in the UK has gone live today for the North-west of England, and will gradually be rolled out across the UK. The £224M ‘Contact Point’, one of the main planks of the ‘Every Child Matters’ initiative, will be accessible to around 390, 000 police, social workers and other relevant professionals. It is mainly being promoted as a time-saving initiative, allowing quicker and more informed intervention in the case of vulnerable children, which we all hope it does, although this of course depends on the correct information being on the database in the first place. In addition, as the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust review, Database State, rated the system as ‘red’ for danger in terms of privacy:

“because of the privacy concerns and the legal issues with maintaining sensitive data with no effective opt-out, and because the security is inadequate (having been designed as an afterthought), and because it provides a mechanism for registering all children that complements the National Identity Register.”

At the Instituto de Segurança Pública

Paola and I had a very productive interview with Colonel Mario Sergio de Brito Duarte, the Director President of the Institute for Public Security (ISP) in Rio de Janeiro. The ISP is a state-level organisation with multiple functions including research on public security and the compilation of crime statistics; professional development for the police services (and also more broadly to encourage greater cooperation and coordination between military and civil police); and community involvement and participation in the development of security policy. The Colonel gave us an hour and a half of his time to explain his view on a wide range of issues around crime, security, the problems of the favelas, and the potential for surveillance, social interventions and policing in solving these problems.

As with many senior police (and military) officers with whom I have talked over the years, the Colonel is an educated, thoughtful man who has strong views based in his experiences as a front-line officer with the Policia Militar in Rio (including some years in BOPE, the special operations section) – as detailed in his book, Incursionanda no Inferno (Incursions into the Inferno). Despite how the title may sound, he was far from being gung-ho or authoritarian in his views, emphasising throughout, as with almost everyone I have talked to, that socio-economic solutions will be the only long-term guarantee of public security in Rio. And he certainly had no sympathy for the illegal actions of militias, despite understanding why they emerged and continued to be supported by some sections of the community.

However, it was also clear to him that current policies like Mayor Eduardo Paes’ ‘choque de ordem’ strategy which involves demolitions of illegally-built houses in the favelas, was absolutely necessary as well. He spent some time outlining his view of the history of how drug gangs infiltrated and gained control of many favelas, an in particular the importance of their obtaining high quality small arms – though he was vague on exactly where these arms came from – I have, of course, heard allegations from other interviewees that corrupt soldiers and policemen were one common source of such weapons.

From the point of view of surveillance studies, it was notable how profoundly indifferent the Colonel appeared to be towards he growth of surveillance, and in particular CCTV cameras. He argued that they might be a useful supplement to real policing, but he certainly did not appear to favour a UK-style ‘surveillance society’ – of which, at least in Rio, there seems little sign as yet. He was similarly indifferent towards other central state social interventions like the Programa Bolsa Familia (PBF), and initiatives like ID cards – of course they might help in some way, but he certainly made no attempt to ague, as the UK government has done, that such technology will make a big difference to fighting crime and terrorism (indeed it was interesting that ‘terrorism’ was not mentioned at all – I guess that, when you have to deal with the constant reality of poverty, drugs and fighting between police and gangs, there is no need to conjure phantasms of terror). Even so, the Colonel recognised that the media in Rio did create fantasies of fear to shock the middle classes, and that this sensationalism did harm real efforts to create safer communities.

There was a lot more… but that will have to wait until I have had the whole interview transcribed and translated. In the meantime, my thanks to Colonel Mario Sergio Duarte and to the very nice and helpful ISP researcher Vanessa Campagnac, one of the authors of the analysis of the Rio de Janeiro Victimisation Survey, who talked to us about more technical issues around crime statistics.