Surveillance and the Recession

In the editorial of the latest issue of Surveillance & Society, I speculated that that the global recession would lead to surveillance and security coming up against the demands of capital to flow (i.e. as margins get squeezed, things like complex border controls and expensive monitoring equipment become more obvious costs). This was prompted by news that in the UK, some Local Authorities were laying off staff employed to monitor cameras and leaving their control rooms empty.

However an article in the Boston Globe today says different. The piece in the business section claims that – at least in its area of coverage – the recession is proving to be good business for surveillance firms, especially high tech ones. The reasons are basically that both crime and the costs of dealing with it become comparatively larger in lean periods. The article doesn’t entirely contradict my reasoning: organisations in the USA are also starting to wonder about the costs of human monitoring within the organisation, but instead they are installing automated software monitoring or are outsourcing the monitoring to more sophisticated control rooms provided by security companies elsewhere.

Shouting cameras in the UK (The Register)
Shouting cameras in the UK (The Register)

They also note that human patrols are in some case being replaced (or at least they can be replaced – it’s unclear exactly how much of the article is PR for the companies involved and how much is factual reporting) by ‘video patrols’, i.e.: remote monitoring combined with reassuring (or instructive) disembodied voices from speakers attached to cameras. Now, we’ve seen this before in the UK as part of New Labour’s rather ridiculous ‘Respect Zones’ plan, but the calming voice of authority from a camera, now what famous novel does that sound like? Actually if it’s not Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is also rather reminiscent of the ubiquitous voice of Edgar Friendly in that odd (but actually rather effective) combination of action movie and Philip K. Dickian future, Demolition Man. The point is that this is what Bruce Schneier has called the ‘security show’. It doesn’t provide any real security, merely the impression that there might be.

How long will it be before people – not least criminals – start to get cynical about the disembodied voice of authority? This then has the potential to undermine more general confidence in CCTV and technological solutions to crime and fear of crime, and could end by increasing both.