Dawn of the Surveillance Dead

My second zombie story today may be (at least for anti-surveillance advocates) a more positive one. Every since the global credit crunch hit, I have been wondering about its effects on the expansion of the surveillance industry (see here, here, here and here). On the one hand, it could be hit as hard as any other sector, but on the other, security tends to be the one sector that thrives in recessions as crime, or at least fear of crime, rises in these periods. I saw on the UK industry site, Surveillance Park, a story about a report by Plimsoll Analysis, conducted over the summer this year, saying that of 960 companies surveyed in the surveillance field in the UK, 143 have been left in a ‘zombie’ state by the recession. Essentially these companies are the living dead: they look like active companies, they have an offficial existence, but in reality there is nothing alive inside – they stumble on merely to pay off existing debts.

However, whilst this may seem like a significant blow to the ongoing expansion of the surveillance industry – that’s 21% of the companies in the sector in trouble – the industry analysts argue that in fact this provides a further opportunity for market consolidation. They say that 79 of these companies are in fact ripe for take-over.

This is part of a trend we have also been witnessing in the research we are doing currently for the Canadian Federal Privacy Commissioner on the involvement of private companies in border control – see e.g. this story. In my view, what is emerging from the recession is a global surveillance and security industry that will be composed of bigger, more diversified companies – a ‘rationalization’ of the proliferation of small start-ups and spin-offs that started in the 1990s but really took off after the US (and international) response to the 9/11 attacks, which made it clear that there would be long-term state investment in and purchasing of high-tech surveillance and security ‘solutions’. The thing is that for those interested in challenging the onward march of surveillance, this may not be such good news after all – bigger companies with their own institutional structures and cultures, and lucrative guaranteed state contracts, are likely to be far less amenable to influence from the outside.

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…

In the recession, are humans too expensive?

One of the things that I have been following over the past few months has been the effect of the recession on security and surveillance. One of the observations I have made is that those investing in security at this time are turning more and more to surveillance in preference to expensive human guards.

The Journal, the regional newspaper of the north-east of England (and my local paper), has a report today which seems to add more weight to this hypothesis, arguing that “the economic downturn, which has had a devastating effect on the construction industry, has led to a growing trend of companies cutting costs by replacing building site security guards with hi-tech CCTV systems”.

However, like the last time I reported on a similar story from Boston in the USA, there is perhaps less to it than meets the eye. The piece is another business section puff-piece for a local company, this time Newcastle-based UK Biometrics, largely a fingerprint ID outfit, on the basis that it is claiming “a 10-fold increase in enquiries for its sideline technology, CCTV cameras which can be accessed via remote devices”. It turns out that the suggested reason for this also comes from the company. This doesn’t make them incorrect, however I tend to treat all local business news stories with a certain degree of scepticism.

There is also a fundamental problem with the reasoning for such decisions, if they are indeed being made, which is one of the big issues with CCTV more generally, which is that cameras, even if they ‘work’ (and what that means is controversial enough), do not provide an equivalent service to a human guard. It is not necessarily a question of better or worse, it is just not the same. CCTV is also nothing if there is no response to the images that are seen. Without operators, analysts and people on the ground to act on the images, there is little point in even thinking that CCTV systems will ‘replace’ what a guard does. If only the machines are watching, there is only the illusion of security; an empty show.

The profits of fear

According to new market research by ABI, summarised by Business Wire, video surveillance remains a growth industry despite the recession, posting 10% growth figures recently. The report also claims that the overall size of the video surveillance industry (which of course it just a portion of the overall security and surveillance sector) will increase to $41 Billion US by 2014 (assuming there is the predicted global economic recovery, of course).

As I have written before, there are two somewhat contradictory trends for this sector in the current recession . The first is the insecurity that results from economic crisis, which coupled with actual rises in crime that also tend to follow, leads to increased investment in security and surveillance. This would tend to suggest a growing market in hard times. However, the other is the increasing mismatch between high security and trade flows. Increased security and surveillance imposes costs on those trying to move and sell goods and services, and this is particularly true of cross-border trade in a time of paranoia about controlling flows of risky people. This could result in a free trade versus security stand-off that might lead to a declining security market. Of course, breaking down the differences further, high tech surveillance is often used in place of physical security and is frequently seen as a substitute for it, so a reaction against higher security might actually lead to more surveillance… either way, the surveillance technology suppliers win.

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.