Surveillance at a crossroads

Time to take stock?

CCTV Befuddled bureaucrats are filling Britain's town centres with the instruments of a surveillance state even though they suspect it's a waste of time and money.

A consequence of this is a lopsided approach to crime prevention, which could leave those agencies tackling the causes of crime neglected, while the forces tackling crime get a disproportionate influence over public life.

That was the conclusion of a paper presented at the Crime Justice and Surveillance Conference last week by Dr. Pete Fussey of the University of East London, on the reasons why councils opt to implement CCTV systems*.

Yet the CCTV User Group, which represents CCTV managers in councils, shopping centres, and other public spaces, has asked the Home Office for more cash to replace decaying systems. The Home Office is conducting a review of the systems that have the British people under tighter surveillance than any other country in the world.

It might be time to take stock.

Fussey discovered from analysing the decisions taken in two town and city centres (both of which co-operated anonymously) that they were a little ambivalent about what they were doing, but went ahead and did it anyway.

"I don't think CCTV would make any difference whatsoever," said a council worker who had authorised the installation of CCTV cameras in a residential area.

The cameras where going into a post-industrial town that had its fair share of troublesome streets, yet the manager said cameras would not prevent 'real crime' and "won't stop the basic problem...there's a real question mark over them."

After compiling an "elaborate" bid to get Home Office funding for a CCTV system, a project manager in a metropolitan city admitted she didn't know whether it would be effective "there's been no proper research done".

Rather than make careful decisions about the wisest way to spend public money and tackle crime, the councils went with the momentum set by two tranches of funding for CCTV systems in the mid-90s and turn of the millennium.

The pressure to spend central government money is so great that it is done without any proper local consultation, said Fussey. The projects are rushed, and managed by people with other jobs to do. The usual suspects with the loudest voices step forward to tell councils what they think about crime prevention, which is usually a righteous haze of reports about irritating misdemeanours.

The inadequacy of this consultation may have been unearthed by Dr. Nils Zurawski at the University of Hamburg. Presenting at the same conference, Zurawski found** that the public desire for surveillance was acute in Boberg, a safe suburb of Hamburg; and insignificant in St. Georg, a poor district.

Comfortable Bobergers, said Zurawski, want to see CCTV go into scuzzy St Georg just as a means of "controlling" the oiks, "even though they never go there...they wouldn't even go there if there was CCTV".

People in St.Georg would rather not see CCTV anywhere in the city, least of all where they live.

Those people most likely to become the subjects of surveillance, the disadvantaged who are most likely to get mixed up in petty crime, are excluded from the decision making process. Serious crime, meanwhile, is overlooked. As it is covert by nature, it is less noticed by people. How would you like us to deal with petty crime, councillors ask. And we say, er...CCTV?

Yet what jumpy suburbanites expect of surveillance is not what they get. The inadequacy of CCTV as a means of preventing crime was revealed by a Home Office study in 2002, after the tranche of CCTV funding that did the pump priming (£20m under John Major in the mid-90s and £170m under Tony Blair in the 2001-02 spending review) had already been dished out.

Still, CCTV has become well embedded to the extent that there are vested interests already pressing the Home Office for more resources to build more extensive, more powerful surveillance systems. The fact is, we haven't worked out whether the last lot has done any good yet.

Social services, the means by which the causes of crime are tackled, is £1.8bn short of funding. But social services are a lot harder to provide and they are disenfranchised, reckons Fussey, when it comes to deciding how to tackle low-level crime.

When deciding whether to spend £1.6m*** on a surveillance system, council workers typically turn to the police. The police, being in the business of enforcement, are all for it. Indeed, the police end up running most local authority surveillance systems, according to Peter Fry, director of the CCTV User Group.

As soon as the police start getting involved in decision making in local authorities, the growth of surveillance as enforcement is guaranteed, from Fussey's point of view, because police are used to working in hierarchies where one person makes a decision and everyone else does as they are told. Consultation? "It's all very well in theory, but in practice the police just end up dominating everyone," says Fussey.®

* "An interrupted transmission? Process of CCTV implementation and the impact of human agency" Pete Fussey, University of East London; presented at the Crime, Justice and Surveillance Conference, hosted by Sheffield University Centre for Criminological Research; publication expected late this year in the Journal of Surveillance and Society

** "Cognitive Mapping and Surveillance: Personal Systems of Orientation and their Impact on Surveillance Attitudes" Nils Zurawski, University of Hamburg

*** The average cost, according to an ongoing CCTV User Group survey that has to date collected examples from 50 local authorities

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