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(Boys and) Girls on film

Brendon O’Neill reports:

Throughout the country are an estimated five million CCTV cameras; that’s one for every 12 citizens. We have more than 20 per cent of the world’s CCTV cameras, which, considering that Britain occupies a tiny 0.2 per cent of the world’s inhab itable land mass, is quite an achievement. The average Londoner going about his or her business may be monitored by 300 CCTV cameras a day. Roughly 1,800 cameras watch over London’s railway stations and another 6,000 permanently peer at commuters on the Underground and London buses. In other major city centres, including Manchester and Edinburgh, residents can expect to be sighted on between roughly 50 and 100 cameras a day.

So if these cameras are so good, why is there any crime at all in the United Kingdom?

18 comments to (Boys and) Girls on film

  • “So if these cameras are so good, why is there any crime at all in the United Kingdom?”

    Well, is anyone watching the cameras, and calling the police if they see a crime committed? And are the police attending: that would be sufficiently quickly to be useful?

    Also, if there is historical review, rather than concurrent viewing, is the video quality good enough to recognise the criminals, and do we have a big database of faces and gait of all the criminal people in the country, so that the criminals can be identified? That is also assuming that face and gait are sufficiently distinctive to identify people (of which they alone, I can assure you, are not), and that the identified criminals can be found.

    It’s a matter of thinking things through, and then doing them if they still look sensible. Meanwhile, in government, …

    Best regards

  • Julian Taylor

    It was estimated a several years ago that if you walked from Parliament Square to Tottenham Court Road underground you would come under the surveillance of over 300 cameras.

    I wonder how soon it is before the government decides to cut out the remote surveillance aspect and just require one side of the public to inform on the other.

  • michael farris

    “So if these cameras are so good, why is there any crime at all in the United Kingdom?”

    They haven’t perfected the death-rays to shoot out of the cameras (yet, that is, you know they’re working on it).

  • Pa Annoyed

    Where oh where will they find the people to watch all that video?
    Is that what all the cheap immigrant labour is for?

    Don’t they make the same argument about the police? “People empowered to break into your home, kidnap, and imprison you for several days while they poke into your private affairs, all for the sake of catching criminals. So why are there any criminals left?”

    Wait till people find out that 2.5bn people around the world carry tiny microphones attached to radio transmitters connected to a global communications net. But you have their word on it that the mobile microphones don’t transmit what they hear unless you press the button. Honest…

  • Midwesterner

    Crime? I thought they were for detecting anti-government activity. Shows what I know.

  • RAB

    Ah Michael but they have ones that talk to you now!
    I forget where but there was a story in the papers the other week about a lady who was walking down the street and discarded a bit of litter and the camera came back with-
    Would you kindly pick that up Madam and put it in the bin.
    The poor woman almost jumped out of her skin!
    Now if they were to put microphones in them too we could be in for some great street theatre come chucking out time.
    “Yeah!!? come down here and say that ! If you’re hard enough!!”
    These cameras do not stop crime. The best they can do is assist in conviction after the fact. And given the pretty high quality pics I saw of some criminals Plod wished to question and couldn’t find, they may not be much use at this either.
    As to speed cameras, they have been found out for the solely money gathering machines that they are, as a recent survey found that speed accounts for only 5% of accidents.
    The only thing that will stop crime is Police on the streets, not behind a video mixing desk.

  • Midwestener the Wise wrote, re CCTV:

    Crime? I thought they were for detecting anti-government activity. Shows what I know.

    This just goes to show, as he be still with us, that: (i) there are many more people than government officials; (ii) it’s very difficult for government to get what it wants, that the people do not really want, without it being totally unreasonable.

    Best regards

  • guy herbert

    It was estimated a several years ago that if you walked from Parliament Square to Tottenham Court Road underground you would come under the surveillance of over 300 cameras.

    That must have been a long time ago. If you walk round Parliament Square you can get close to that number. You don’t need to brave Whitehall or the West End.

    I wonder how soon it is before the government decides to cut out the remote surveillance aspect and just require one side of the public to inform on the other.

    It does that already in relation to several sorts of offence. In addition, not in the alternative. A professional handling money for a client is required to inform at once if he suspects or ought to suspect that some of it is unlawfully obtained. It is a crime not to inform in relation to the hugely wide ambit of terrorism offences. Everyone who reads this blog and has not reported us yet is presumably liable, if we are subsequently deemed to be indirectly inciting terrorism.

  • Why is there still crime?

    Well I guess the answer from proponents of cameras would be simple:

    “There are not nearly enough cameras.”

    That’s how one always supports a bad policy — it’s not being done enough. Still have poverty when we have many government programs? The answer is obviously we don’t have enough govt programs. Etc etc.

  • metrocentric

    As has been noticed, the output of many of these cameras goes unmonitored in real time. Another point to bear in mind is that, despite surveillance technology getting cheaper, many cameras are still fakes. A blatant example of this can be found around the Marble Arch pedestrian subways – overtly bulky cameras have been turned on their swivels to point at nearby walls, or the sky, or been knocked off altogether. My favourite is that intended to cover the central ‘hole-in-the-ground’ area, which I walk through regularly. In the four years I’ve lived here it has been trained intently on an adjacent patch of wall, about eight feet up. A couple of years ago someone stencilled the words ‘What are you looking at?’ directly in its field of vision. Needless to say, its gaze hasn’t shifted an inch since. A few weeks ago someone was murdered on the traffic island above, accessible only by a brave dash across a busy road not intend to be traversed by pedestrians – the police ‘Can you help’ boards are out in force, and it’s tempting to ask if they have been in touch with Westminster Council for the tapes from their ‘cameras’.

    More generally this use of CCTV as an rhetorical crime prevention strategy, may in fact have the effect of making criminals more confident in that environment – even when the cameras are working. Anyone who has travelled by bus in London of late will have noted the profusion of ‘scratchiti’ on upper deck windows, and at the same time plentiful cameras, sometimes with on-board screens to relay pictures to the passengers to show that they are working. Any crack-head in urgent need of funds will quickly perceive that if the cameras are no deterrent to an optional leisure activity such as laboriously scraping the end of a drill bit back and forth across a window, it should be little impediment to his/her taking a sharp instrument to passengers as a means of extracting cash from them.

    I recall, probably inaccurately, a rather dated story to illustrate this. A small child, bored and fractious, is in a railway compartment with its mother. It fumbles with the handle of the door to the corridor and its mother warns ‘Don’t go out there, or the monster will eat you!’. The child eventually proceeds into the corridor and discovers two things: that there is no monster, and that Mummy is a liar.

    This isn’t to dimish concerns over surveillance – but as it stands now, even in ostensibly surveilled areas the real results are currently patchy.

  • I work in computer vision.

    You folks have no idea what is coming.

    No one is watching those camera feeds. One operator looking at one feed misses 95% of the information after 20 minutes of watching. More often operators “watch” dozens of feeds.

    Today, the cameras are essentially useless.

    Enter automated surveillance.

    Each moving object is detected and classified as a human, vehicle, etc. Multi-camera tracking means each human/vehicle is unique. Licence plate detection + OCR = automated person identification. Identification from gait is easier and more reliable than face recognition.

    Gunshot sigantures can be localized very accurately. Systems will be able to identify a struggle, or a car accident.

    There will be someting watching _every_ camera feed shortly, and its capabilities will only get better.

    This needn’t be bad. Private industry will do it even if a government doesn’t. Clearly oversight is essential. Further, public surveillence of a street corner is very different than observing private infromation: there _could_ have been a human officer watching you whenever you are photographed by the CCTV systems. This is just more efficient.

    The point is to be aware of the direction artificial intelligence research is taking to be more informed about the debate.

    If anything, the power of automation _adds_ to the libertarian argument. Transparacy and oversight are essential to have proper public automated surveillence.

  • Julian Taylor

    Or failing that – why not just outsource the watching to a call centre in Lahore?

  • “So if these cameras are so good, why is there any crime at all in the United Kingdom?”

    Because you don’t have a Second Amendment and concealed carry laws.

    Victim disarmament.

  • gravid

    Don’t we know it Kentuckyliz. Our “no have law” keeps us as they want us.

  • @michael farris – Charles Stross’s “The Concrete Jungle” is a wonderful SF/fantasy story involving CCTV death rays – just imagine you have a neural net modeled on a hydra’s brain.

    On a different note – I had to report a crime the other day – a few bikes were stolen, and the railings to which they were attached were cut through. The officer on the phone was taking details, and said “…no CCTV footage…” at which point I interrupted, saying that there was a camera pointing straight at the place where it happened. The officer asked if I could say when the crime occurred, which I could only do to within a range of two days – so the “no CCTV” box, as far as I could tell, remained unchecked.

    I have to wonder if this means that they don’t keep archives, or that they don’t find the footage useful enough to glance through a appropriate couple of days for something not involving injury to someone, or if the camera concerned is fake.

  • darkbhudda

    So if these cameras are so good, why is there any crime at all in the United Kingdom?

    Last I heard a large number of police were being disciplined for using the cameras to perv on people.

    They’re too busy aiming the cameras into ladies’ windows to watch for crime. If they spotted anyone, they’d just have to arrest them. Then the judge would throw the case out. The jails are supposedly too full to handle “petty cases” like burglary and assault anyway. They need the room for people who don’t hug every Muslim they see.

  • Shtetl G

    One day, in the late 80′s, me and my friends were hanging out in NYC. After a while the sun began to set and it was time to go. Me and my buddies decided to hoof it to Port Authority (the bus station). This was during Mayor David Dinkins reign and much of NYC was not cleaned up and the neigboorhood around Port Authority was a little dicey to put it mildly. Being young and stupid, by the time we made it to the PA it was night time. We had just made it across the street from the station, when a crack head grabbed my cousin and said “give me 10 dollars.” My cousin only had money for the bus fare and dutifully gave his his remaining 5 dollars. The crack head then went to the rest us, “give me 5 dollars.” At this point we were pleading to my cousin to just make a run for it to the bus station across the street. At this point the crack head said “your buddy ain’t making it across the street unless you give me 5 dollars” and he then started to reach ominously into his coat. At this point my smart friend quickly handed him his remaining 10 dollars (he did not get any change) and the crack head let my cousin go. We quickly made it to the PA.

    One of the defining features of the Port Authority is that right in the middle of the bus station is an enormous security station with dozens of monitors showing various points inside and outside of the bus station (at least that was what it was like 15 years ago). As we were on the way to the police to report the crime we went right by the security station and on one of the screens I could clearly see the corner where we were robbed. Of course at that moment there was no one manning the station. Well to make a long story short, the police called our parents who picked us up and yelled at us for being stupid 16 year olds.

    Reading that article made me think of that story from my youth. I wonder why…………