Why so many CCTVs in UK?

I went to the Institute of Criminology yesterday afternoon. Prof Martin Gill of Leicester University gave a brilliant talk on their extensive study on assessing the effectiveness of CCTV in reducing crime.

This was a proper, scientifically-conducted study with plenty of field work and “user studies”—including fascinating simulations with cooperative shoplifters rigged up with hidden cameras and microphones, as well as interviews with convicted murderers.

The speaker had wonderful war stories on people protecting the wrong things, or the right things in the wrong ways, and generally failing to understand how criminals actually operate. He clearly speaks the same language as us and I told him I’d like to invite him to give a seminar here.

One gem among many was the shop that believed itself ultra-secure because it had a giant, scary-looking, 130-kg-of-muscle security guard at the exit; to which the expert shoplifter commented “I’ll have an easy time here! Their only protection is that enormous bloke over there that I can easily outrun!”. The chest size of the guard is only scary if you’re planning to pick a fight with him.

Another good point was that several of the murderers had acted on impulse (alcohol, jealousy, rage) and were not planning to kill anyone when they got up that morning. At the time of killing their victim they were not acting exactly rationally and even the presence of a machine-gun-armed guard wouldn’t have deterred them, let alone a camera.

Anyway, one of the interesting high level messages, and the reason why I file this under “Security economics”, is that the ubiquity of CCTV cameras in the UK is apparently a straightforward consequence of the plentiful availability of government money for CCTV. This created pressure to bid for CCTV installation grants regardless of their actual effectiveness, as an easy way to get at the allocated grant funds.

Obvious meta-questions would then be: why was CCTV so over-funded in the first place? who are the CCTV suppliers that made all the money? and is anyone in a position to reassure us that, as we’d like to believe, there were no links?

4 thoughts on “Why so many CCTVs in UK?

  1. I think the displacement finding is most interesting. It implies that if your neighbor has CCTV then you are then forced to invest or accept displacement.

    Does CCTV decrease or displace crime? At first look it seems that displacement evidence is stronger than reduction evidence.

    It is 107 pages of study, so careful with the print button.

  2. The Cambridge Wekly News of 1 March 2006 reports that four CCTV cameras are to be installed on Parker’s Piece and Christ’s Pieces, in response to several recent violent incidents.

    From the article:

    Coun Mike Dixon, who represents the Market Ward, said the cameras were an expensive addition but were “money well spent”

    The same article also reports that our local Council Tax is to be increased by four percent.

    In the light of this study, one might reasonably ask whether this really was money well spent.

  3. All fixed security systems and quick hit technology solutions suffer from the same problems “Evolution by the target” and “function creep”,

    They also tend to be “reactive” not “proactive” which gives the oportunity for evolution by the target.

    If you put a CCTV system up somewhere you initially displace the crime else where (apart from those not acting rationaly). If measured at this point in time the system is declaired a success.

    Eventually however the criminal learns that by wearing two or three light weight coats with hoods, not only do they conceal their face, they also can when out of sight of the CCTV change their coat so significantly reducing the ability of the Police etc to pick them up (this is the behaviour practiced by Steaming Gangs on the railway network in south London). IF the system is measured at this point it is shown to have at best a marginal effect.

    The result is that the smarter criminal has out evolved the security system (in this case CCTV). The less smart criminal gets aprehended and hopefully removed from the pool of criminals at large in society.

    It is sort of like an arms race you have the people responsable for security-v-criminals. The former are usually limited by the on going costs (staff, maintanence), the latter by the need to gain benifit from their illicit activities.

    Providing a sudden increase in funding for a new / improved “technology” to the security side initially gives an advantage to them, however the criminals quickly evolve their methods and the effective value of the technology quickly depreciates and the status quo returns to a point only marginaly different than before the funding. If the system is costly to run then you have a significant loss that has to be made up (more council tax?)

    The unpalatable (to polititians and technologists) solution to the problem, as has been voiced in the past is to have in place a security system that has the ability to evolve as quickly as the criminals. This basically boils down to well trained humans on the ground.

    Because of this using technology to replace people on the ground will always reach a point where it is nolonger effective for the job it was designed to do. Where technology does work is where it augments the people on the ground making them more effective.

    The real hidden problem is once you have a system in place that is no-longer able to do the job it was designed for what do you do with it. Invariably it is not scrapped but suffers mission/function creep at which point personal fredoms are usually encroched upon.

    An example of this is speed traps, drivers quickly learnt to slow down where the fixed traps where and speed up again when past. Due to the expense of the system it became “self financing” with fines paying for new equipment. The result the systems proliferated untill the general populace realised that they had become a new TAX supporting a new and ineffective buracratic system. The unfortunate hiden side effect was that they actually made roads more dangerous with drivers speeding up and slowing down rapidly etc.

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