Would Canadians be “safer with a camera on every corner”?

I haven’t got very involved with Canadian debates on surveillance yet (but don’t worry, I will!). However a comment piece in Thursday’s Globe and Mail, which demanded that Canadian cities install ubiquitous video surveillance, prompted me to pen an immediate letter, which was signed by both Professor David Lyon and myself. It was published today, slightly edited – the full version is below. (They also decided to edit out our respective titles, which makes me look senior to Professor Lyon. Oops.)

“Marcus Gee writes that “We’d be safer with a camera on every corner” (Comment, May 22nd, p.15). If only this were true. However it simply is not the case.

Mr Gee quotes the UK as an example of where video surveillance is effective, but this is not supported by the crime figures in the UK or by academic research. The most comprehensive evaluation of all studies done of the effects of CCTV on crime (by the Campbell Collaboration, 2009) concluded that it had little or not effect on the occurrence of violent crimes like the disgraceful murder of Christopher Skinner, which prompted Mr Gee to write. Even the limited British police assessment of CCTV conducted by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) in 2008, admitted this was the case.

It is easy to demand that ‘something must be done’ as a response to any particular incident of violent crime, and CCTV is the currently fashionable ‘something.’ But let us get beyond the superficial and look at the evidence. Then we could have a proper debate about CCTV.”

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.

How many cameras are there in Britain? (2)

Well, Aaronovitch’s piece came out. It’s not even as interesting as I had thought it would be, and my account yesterday says all that needs to be said in response, except to note that he even managed to get my surname wrong and that of the character in Clive’s book, which is more than ironic for an attack on inaccuracy! Journalists, eh? Gotta love ’em…

To be fair to The Times, it has been getting better recently on this issue, and they carried a very good interview with the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, last week, which was in marked contrast to their sniping at him a few years ago. It also shows a depth of understanding and the political maturity needed to recognise what is important in the debate on surveillance.

How many cameras are there in Britain?

The truth is that no-one knows exactly how many cameras there are in Britain or indeed in any country in the world

I’ve been having an interesting little private exchange with a David Aaronovitch of The Times newspaper, who seems to think he has uncovered a terrible conspiracy… and I think I am about to be accused (tomorrow) of being ‘cavalier’ with the truth and of misleading the public. Interestingly enough this is going to be in the same newspaper that was the only one that tried to rubbish the Information Commissioner back in 2006 when we published our Report on the Surveillance Society and indeed were actively lobbying against his reappointment. I suppose someone has to argue the establishment case…

What David has been e-mailing me about is the validity of figures concerning the number of CCTV cameras in Britain that journalists have been happily spreading about for the last ten years. These figures are the ‘4.2million CCTV cameras in Britain’, and the ‘person can be captured on 300 different cameras in a day.’ He seems to think that it is an urgent matter of national importance if these old figures aren’t ‘accurate’ or apply to the average person. Well, they were and are purely indicative – they aren’t ‘accurate’ and never were, and the latter one doesn’t apply to a typical Briton and neither Clive Norris, whose figures they are, nor myself, nor any other credible surveillance studies academic that I know, has ever claimed that they are and do.

The first figure derives from what Professor Norris openly described as a ‘guesstimate’ in his working paper with Mike McCahill on CCTV in London that was done for the EU’s UrbanEye project. Based on a casual count of cameras in one small neighbourhood in London in around 2000 (not the City of London where cameras were much more concentrated even then) it aimed to get a very loose handle on the scale of the spread of CCTV in Britain. The police at the time claimed that the real figure was in hundreds of thousands, but they were only talking about public cameras, and they had just as little idea of the extent of CCTV.

The other figure that of 300 cameras a day came from a little fictional vignette that Professor Norris and Dr Gary Armstrong wrote for their book, The Maximum Surveillance Society, which came out back in 1999. It was simply designed to illustrate how many cameras a person could possibly be caught be in any one day. I was thinking it would actually be very hard for this to be that likely even now, except perhaps in the very core of global cities like London, but then there are over 300 cameras on the university campus where I am currently, and I haven’t even started on all the private cameras, the public cameras in the city, the traffic cameras, the cameras in the buses, banks, shops, cafes, restaurants, bars, in the hotel etc. etc. I would estimate that I am caught by around 100 cameras when I am out and about here and this isn’t even a city that considers itself to be particularly ‘under surveillance.’

The truth is that no-one knows exactly how many cameras there are in Britain or indeed in any country in the world. We deliberately used words like ‘may’ or ‘can be’ in reference to these figures in our Report on the Surveillance Society because they are so rough, so inaccurate – and we were quite clear that this was not in any case a report about CCTV; if anything we tried to downplay CCTV and get to other technologies and techniques, such as dataveillance and RFID, and more importantly the way connections and links are being made, and boundaries blurred. ‘Millions’ may be about as accurate as we can guess for the UK. But does it matter if there are 1 million, 4.2 million or 10 million? Not hugely. It matters as one crude indicator of a surveillance society, but even then, the number of cameras is a very crude measure and more cameras does not necessarily mean more comprehensive coverage or better pictures, or more ‘control’. For example, would it be worse or better if I was only seen by one camera in a day, but that camera was there all the time and I was constantly being assessed on my performance (as for example is the case with many workers in call centres)? The Guardian today seems to understand this – in its report on the high-tech control room in Westminster, it clearly states that ‘no-one knows’ how many cameras there are (before quoting some even more made-up figure than ours!).

I know the media likes its easy numbers, but an old saying about not being able to see the wood for the trees comes to mind… As a researcher, I am more interested in characteristics of the wood than the specific number of trees. Now if there were no trees at all or very few, that would matter. And in my current comparative project it has some importance as one of the many indicators of what constitutes a surveillance society that I am looking into. So in a couple of year’s time I may have more of an idea of from any cameras there really are in Britain. One of the things I am trying to do during my current project is develop better ways of assessing ‘how much surveillance’ there is, and what it means. Because that is the important issue – meaning. Does it matter if there were 1/6 or 1/7 or 1/8 of the population of the former East Germany who were recruited as informers? You’ll find all those as educated guesses in the literature. What matters was that there was a culture of informing that pervaded every action. It was a society that became increasingly based on deception and distrust.

The key questions with CCTV are:

  1. first of all, why are there any cameras, and particular any cameras in public space, at all? Surely there was a line crossed when the first use of CCTV occurred. What was the reasoning?
  2. why did CCTV spread so quickly to so many places, and was so little contested?
  3. why is CCTV now considered so ‘normal’ in Britain?
  4. connected to this, why do the myths of CCTV’s effectiveness continue to be spread when all of the evidence shows a small and very limited impact on crime?
  5. what kind of a society does pervasive CCTV create? what are the social effects? what kind of social and cultural responses are there?


Unfortunately the media doesn’t seem to like depth or uncertainty. Maybe that was our real mistake – to overestimate the intelligence of the media. I have asked them for a right of reply – I am more than happy to debate the issue in public. Let’s see if that happens…