Cctv and the Surveillance Society

Doktor Jon asked:


These days, you can hardly open a newspaper or switch on the telly, without being bombarded with stories about video surveillance, or digital CCTV, or indeed many less than glowing references to Big Brother; so what exactly is the state of surveillance in Britain today?

Well generally speaking, it’s either regarded as a sure fire vote winner and the greatest thing in crime fighting since the invention of the tin whistle, or one millimetric step away from a bottomless Orwellian abyss.

The truth of course tends to lie somewhere in the middle, but then the problem of quantifying the merits or otherwise in using this technology, are somewhat diluted by a fundamental misunderstanding about exactly what the use of Closed Circuit Television means to our modern society.

Although most people consider the now widescale adoption of CCTV as a relatively new phenomenon and something to be enthusiastically embraced, the UK is actually charging headlong into a “third age” of video surveillance, with little if any informed discussion on the benefits and outcomes we could perhaps expect over the next five to ten years.

It was not so long ago that the Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, was warning of Britain “sleepwalking” into a surveillance state, and yet a report commissioned by his own office and published in September 2006, actually leads with the statement “We live in a surveillance society. It is pointless to talk about surveillance society in the future tense.”

To industry insiders, this apparent revelation was no more a surprise than the realisation that successive academic reports into the effectiveness of CCTV in tackling crime, have only served to highlight a hidden technical conundrum, which impacts hugely on the way in which cameras are frequently failing to fulfill their potential, or live up to expectations, depending on your particular point of view.

Time and again, reviews are published which throw in to question whether CCTV actually works, but almost without exception, there is a significant flaw in the presentation of the data. When reporting on technical efficiency, it is naively assumed that the systems have been correctly profiled, designed, installed and operated, to achieve the highest levels of efficacy.

In practice, little could be further from the truth.

Generally speaking, there is no wider public realisation that Closed Circuit Television, CCTV, video surveillance or whatever else you want to call it, is actually a discipline that relies on the expert application of a huge range of tools and techniques, in order to address the unique set of demands and circumstances found in any given location.

Whilst Joe Public may see the working end of a system as simply a remote control camera stuck on a pole in their local high street, possibly a couple of miles away from the ‘state of the art’ control room, the inescapable fact is that much of our existing CCTV is actually working at a very low level of technical efficiency, and indeed in many situations, is little more than a labour intensive exercise in lottery surveillance.

Now if that sounds a rather harsh indictment of an industry that is blessed with an abundance of positive perception, then I make no apology for saying that an open and informed debate, on both the way that video surveillance is currently being embraced and the shape of things to come, is now well overdue, if not already too late.

Much has been remarked just recently on the use of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) systems, and how vehicles can be tracked through a network of cameras, much as is presently done with the London Congestion Charge scheme.

At present, as a law enforcement tool it is undoubtedly extremely useful indeed, but then it isn’t 100% accurate, and also not without its very own achilles heel.

The recently leaked Home Office memo which highlights the intention of possibly using all available traffic monitoring cameras to provide “real time” tracking of vehicles, really shouldn’t provide any great surprises, given previously well publicised announcements on future operational intentions.

That said, this particular tool is only a very small part of a rapidly developing ‘Video Analytics’ armoury, where numerous commercial and scientific research groups around the world, are rushing to develop workable computer based smart systems, that can for example provide dependable ****** recognition (at best, it’s generally only around 30 – 50% efficient at present), object and target tracking and behavioural analysis, particularly for anti terrorism or Homeland Security use, and seriously clever technology that can help investigators search through vast amounts of recorded data looking for a specific object or individual.

This latter development holds enormous potential for improving existing control room operations by reducing the inevitable data overload, particularly where a single operator may already be responsible for monitoring dozens or more remote control cameras.

Mind you, whilst existing technology already provides for the possibility of automatically tracking a single moving target, in the not too distant future using very high resolution Mega Pixel surveillance cameras, computers will be able to track multiple targets on screen, and so effectively follow a number of individuals movements within a given area, and all without the involvement of any human operator.

It’s interesting that whilst the technology continues to develop at a breathtaking pace, any attempt to regulate or oversee the way in which it is applied, is still fixed firmly somewhere back in the dark ages. Civil libertarians have for many years cautioned over the unfettered adoption of CCTV, and its potential for abuse and misuse. In fact, the perception that its negative effects in terms of privacy concerns for the law abiding, has not been mitigated by any significant impact on the behaviour of the law defying, has in itself become something of a cause celebres amongst those in the know.

Whilst it’s reasonable to say that historically technical indiscretions by system operators are by no means commonplace, it is becoming an increasingly difficult environment to foresee the appropriate and responsible use of this undoubtedly powerful technology, unless effective steps are taken to provide some practical form of regulation, perhaps through the establishment of an independent Public Surveillance Inspectorate.

Whilst the tired old mantra of ‘if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about’ may provide a cloak of comfort to those most happy to unreservedly embrace whatever is being offered, the fact remains that even using the most technically impressive systems available, there is a potential for mistaken identity, and this can have dire consequences for any innocent but accused individual.

It’s interesting to note that whilst the figure of 4.2 million CCTV cameras in the UK has been bandy’d about for quite a few years now, it is probably fair to say that whatever the true number was then, it has most certainly significantly increased in recent times.

With the distinct possibility that the vast majority of the UKs video surveillance cameras are now resting somewhere between invariably inefficient operation, and an embarrassing waste of investment, it is rather ironic that around the world we are held up to be the masters at applying this technology, with untold countries gleefully queueing up to follow our less than exemplary example.

Sad to say, but early indications are that they are more than willing to make exactly the same mistakes as us, in a frantic yet understandable desire to play catch up. Video surveillance is already an extremely powerful tool, and its potential for development over the next few years would be like comparing a pocket camcorder to a Box Brownie.

We can either have an informed and long overdue debate about the future for our surveillance state, or accept that inevitably the concept of an individual being considered innocent until proven guilty, will undoubtedly be technologically replaced with potentially guilty …. until the computer says no!



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