What’s Wrong with Video Surveillance?

Occasionally, you need to simplify and clarify. Someone asked me the other day, “so, what’s wrong with CCTV anyway?” Here was my quick answer.*

1. Does CCTV prevent crime?

The prevention of crime was the main rationale for CCTV in Britain back in the early days in the 1990s, and this rationale is still the main one currently in the USA…

But meta-evaluation of valid studies of CCTV by Welsh and Farrington, recently published as Making Places Safer by OUP, shows the following: that studies can only show a positive correlation between reduction in rates of crime and the installation and operation of CCTV in limited situations, namely in car parks and the like. This is because car theft is a more rational form of crime (the perpetrators are often professional criminals and they do not want to get caught). Most crime, especially street crime and violence is not so rational. People do not generally look up in their violent drunken haze and think ‘ooh, there’s a camera, better not kick this guy’s head in’.

According to Martin Gill and co.’s work evaluating 14 schemes across the UK, only 1 resulted in a clear reduction in crime over the longer term. CCTV can have temporary effects in reducing crime (and police studies always seem to be done in these early months and hence are very misleading), but over the years after installation, unless other things are done, the crime will return to similar levels. It’s those other things that are done – more community volunteers, neighbourhood watch schemes, better street lighting, economic regeneration – that make the difference to crime rates. People who think they ‘know’ it’s down to CCTV are just looking at A and B and thinking changes to A must be a result of B, without considering C, D and E…

What can be useful in this regard, knowing that temporary reductions can be made, is to use CCTV in targeted, temporary and flexible manner – i.e. if you are going to have video surveillance at all, make it moveable and used to target specific areas where there have been sudden increases in crime.

So, so much for prevention…

2. What about solving crime? Surely CCTV gives us lots of evidence?

Well, not as much as you might think. The biggest study of street robbery and CCTV in London (the city with the highest density of cameras in Europe), commissioned by the Metropolitan Police, showed that only 3% of such crimes were solved using CCTV . And, figures released in 2007 through Freedom of Information Act requests, showed that 80% of crime in London still goes unsolved even with this infrastructure.

3. But at least someone’s looking out for us – right?

Studies of control rooms show that the professionalism and seriousness of operators is increasing but there is still evidence that more time is spent on anti-social behaviour and dealing with ‘unwanted’ people than the potential for serious crime, particularly in shopping districts. Who is watched and why is also complicated by family and social connections, especially in smaller towns. CCTV systems are also increasingly difficult to watch as the numbers of cameras and screens increase; there aren’t enough staff, however well-trained they are, to do a really efficient job in most cases and computer analytics are not good enough (yet).

In addition, there is the growing issue of cost. There were originally subsidies for installing CCTV in Britain in the 1990s, but running costs, maintenance and replacement have to be covered by the operators (usually Local Authorities) and there is an ongoing row going on behind the scenes between LAs and police in the UK about who pays for it.

Now costs are starting to bite, exacerbated by recession and new Tory efficiency savings, some local authorities have even started to either combine their monitoring with others – meaning even more distant and less efficient watching and in some cases have stopped watching the cameras live at all (in many countries this dead recording is normal anyway).

4. What about the Courts?

The only undoubtedly positive effect seems to be that it encourages criminals who are caught to confess and plead guilty, which saves court costs and time – although of course, guilty pleas mean that the criminals are punished less and out of prison quicker (if they go in at all), which might be felt not to be an advantage by some!


Video Surveillance, particularly fixed CCTV,  is expensive, inefficient and has all kinds of negative social side-effects. Public money would be better spent on improved street lighting, schemes for community involvement and economic regeneration. CCTV certainly isn’t a ‘Panopticon’ because actually it doesn’t actually ‘see’ very well at all nor does it actually seem to alter behaviour as much as states would like in itself, but it does appear to contribute to the decline of social trust and decreasing personal responsibility, which are partly at least to blame for the problems CCTV is supposed to solve, and all of which would be more likely to increase with other solutions.

*In most ways, this answer is not really ‘mine’ – it’s the distillation of many other people’s work, some of whom are mentioned here, some of whom like Clive Norris, Mike McCahill, Will Webster, Pete Fussey and Gavin Smith, are not… anyway, they know who they are! Thank-you all…