Lies, Damned Lies and CCTV Statistics…

Earlier today, I reported on reports that claimed that 96% of US citizens support video surveillance. Now, thanks to Vicki Contavespi, and the people at BRS Labs who commissioned the survey from Harris Interactive, I have the raw figures. And, unsurprisingly enough, whilst they aren’t ‘lies’, they don’t quite show what the headlines suggested – just as my headline, a quote often attributed of course to Disraeli, is also an overstatement of the case at hand. This is a very interesting survey. There were quite a few questions asked, and I don’t have time to go through all of them here now, but I will just deal with the question of ‘support’ for video surveillance and break it down just a little more.

First of all, the main questions on the acceptability of video surveillance (and other surveillance techniques) are couched in an particular way that is common in market research. The lead question is “How strongly do you agree or disagree with each of the following statements?” There is then a list of statements, which each have four options: strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, and strongly disagree. There is no ‘neutral / don’t care / no opinion’ option, which might have taken out many of those in the ‘somewhat’ categories on either side. The headline figures used then, of course, elide the ‘strongly’ and ‘somewhat’ figures.

For video surveillance, there are two main statements, firstly, “The federal government should be able to utilize video surveillance as long as my personal privacy is not invaded”, and secondly, “Local law enforcement should be able to use surveillance cameras to monitor public places.” The first question already contains a bias, in that is specifies a situation of no privacy invasion. This effectively nullifies the most common objection to video surveillance, and especially for those for whom the Federal Government is a intrinsically suspicious entity. The second, interestingly, doesn’t have this proviso, but then ‘local law enforcement’ isn’t ‘the Feds’ and generally does not attract the same antipathy. But the lack of a qualifying statement might provide a better clue to US public attitudes on video surveillance overall. For the first statement, the ‘headline’ figure of agreement is 82% and the second is 78%. However this disguises the fact that ‘strong agreement’ is much more limited, 36 and 35% respectively. And if you add up the ‘somewhat agree’ and ‘somehat disagree’ figures, you get 57% and 58%, which indicates to me that the majority of US people don’t have strong opinions for or against CCTV. See – statistics are all about what you are looking for in them!

What is even more interesting is that the question was then asked: “Which of the following aspects of video surveillance cameras, if any, concern you?” You would think that, given the headline and press release, that the survey showed no real concerns about CCTV. But that really isn’t the case at all. In fact, 88% of respondents said they were concerned by at least one of the listed aspects of video surveillance. Now remember, you’ve only got 18% or 22% who said that they disagreed with CCTV in terms of the question posed above, so this means that even most of the people who supported CCTV to whatever degree of strength, had concerns and most had more than one concern. This is quite striking. The main concerns were “not knowing what will be done with the information that is gathered ” (66%), “The fact that recorded footage can be used to mistakenly incriminate me” (61%), “Not knowing the background of whoever may be watching” (60%), “Not knowing how often and where I might be watched” (50%) and “The fact that photographs can be taken of me without permission” (48%). The only one on which there was significant difference between men and women seems (and I haven’t done any statistical analysis of the difference) to be over the concern about how often and where people might be watched, about which women were more likely to be concerned than men. In fact, in the whole survey, there appear to be no real overt differences in response based on gender.

So where, you might well be asking, does this 96% support figure come from? I searched through the tables some distance for the 96% figure before I found it. It certainly doesn’t refer to generalised support, but comes in response to the following question: “Which of the following areas, if any, do you think should be monitored by video surveillance in an effort to help protect U.S. citizens?” A-ha! So we have a question that implies the use of video surveillance somewhere, and that it will be used specifically to help protect US citizens (none of those foreigners!). The question is clearly pushing the respondents towards a positive answer. But here too things are not quite what the headlines claimed. Certainly, 96% of respondents said that video surveillance should be used in some areas. However, it is only in “Airports” (92%), “Public transportation” (85%) and “Seaports” (82%) that there is an overwhelming vote of confidence (though quite why seaports are considered to be less at risk or would benefit less from video surveillance than airports, I am not quite sure – the ghosts of 9/11 hover, I suppose).

“Public schools/Universities” barely scrape a majority (53%), and one wonders what the figures would be if they split universities and schools (and indeed different levels of school). “Playgrounds” only hit 39% – not so much of the common British ‘think of the kiddies’ paranoia here perhaps – “Businesses” – where of course surveillance is actually more likely to be found than anywhere else! – doesn’t manage a third (32%) and “Local neighborhoods”, which is the only unequivocal ‘public space’ category is only on 22%. Why not parks? Why not city centre streets? It is of course these places where the real controversy and the real fire and debate over CCTV lies. And the indications from this survey are that the more personal, the more intimate, the more there is a sense of ‘community’, the less likely US citizens are to accept video surveillance, even if it is couched in the overly positive way it is here.

And there is a question whose answers demonstrate further the complexity here. And, ironically, the percentage of respondents who replied to the question “Which of the following, if any, do you think are currently the biggest threats to your personal privacy?” with one of more concerns was – you guessed it – 96%! The major concerns were actually mostly from private or criminal surveillance: “identity theft” (74%), “Internet security threats” (70%) and “Unknown individuals who handle my personal information” (60%). Only 33% were concerned about federal or local government, but this isn’t surprising when this category is headed, as it is in the survey, “Big Brother”! Who is going to admit to being scared of ‘Big Brother’? And if you are going to give a silly popular stereotype as a potential answer, then the other categories should be similarly labelled… And why wasn’t this 96% the lead-in for the media?

As I said, there is a lot more in here too, and despite its flaws, this is an interesting survey which has much to it than meets the eye if you just read the media reports.

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…

Even video surveillance hit by global recession?

According to a new market-research report produced by Arizona firm, In-Stat, the market for video surveillance equipment has seen a slow-down in unit grow in 2009, and even a decline in overall revenue (and this may be the first time this has happened for many years). This is interesting as it is conventional wisdom that the security sector is generally unaffected or even benefits from recession (but see some previous posts here and here for other aspects of surveillance in a global recession). However the report also states that whereas sales of cameras are relatively flat, sales of data-recording equipment, especially hybrid recorders that can handle both analogue and digital images, are increasing and this is partly due to the US government’s stimulus package. This suggests that those operating exisiting video surveillance systems that may have older analogue cameras are chosing not to upgrade their cameras now but are making sure that they can retain the images more efficiently. The report predicts that, after the recovery, the overall market for video surveillance equipment in 2011 will be $19Bn US.

Mind you, I haven’t read the report in full, only this summary, because it retails at $3,495 US! Someone is clearly expecting to make plenty of money out of the recession…