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Reflections on CCTV in public places

Tim Sandefur makes some good points on why surveillance cameras are not necessarily “Orwellian”, by pointing out that if it is intrusive to have a camera in a public street, why do people not complain if a police officer or some other official of the State is patrolling up and down? However, where I think the debate gets a bit tangled is that for many people, while CCTV is good at recording crimes, it records the incidents after they have taken place. It is less clear if these cameras have a deterrent effect in the same way that police patrols might do. CCTV did not, as far as I can tell, appreciably affect the pattern of the London mayhem of last August. Local authorities and other bodies may claim that CCTV really does cut crime, but I am not sure how reliable such statements really are. In the area where I live – Pimlico – there were a number of street robberies on women and the area has its share of CCTV (which is not surprising as the area is full of politicians, such as former defence ministers, in one case).

In summary, CCTV might not be as Big Brother as some fear, but the real problem is that it is only of limited use in deterring thugs.

Separately, I hardly ever read articles thinking through the implications of last August’s disgraceful looting, violence and mayhem. How easy we forget.

10 comments to Reflections on CCTV in public places

  • Hugo

    The police didn’t do much to deter rioting either, at first!

  • PeterT

    This is one of those questions where asking oneself “if it were private rather than run by the state, would it be ok?” I’m pretty sanguine with the use of cameras. People worry about privacy, but privacy isn’t the same thing as liberty. The issue rather is what the data is used for. It is here that the rise of the database state is worrisome. As long as the information gathered remains dispersed and used only for very specific purposes it should be ok – e.g. CCTV in shopping malls. The problems start when the data is used for purposes for which it was not originally intended. Witness the rise of social security numbers in the US as an ID number in all but name. Indeed, the prospect of the UK adopting ID cards is to me much more concerning than CCTV. Unfortunately I think this is an area where liberty will continue losing ground apace. The vast majority of people care much more about comfort than liberty, and damn the minority.

  • nemesis

    People say ‘if you are not doing anything wrong – you shouldnt worry about CCTV’ but my gut feeling is that it is more insidious than that. May be it is the presumption of guilt that they are there in the first place which is more worrying.
    There is one in a nearby street to where I live. It was put up on the pretext of deterring and detecting criminal behaviour but is now soley used for minor parking offences and has become a fantastic revenue earner.

  • JohnB

    They set a power precedent.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Two reasons for cctv- girls will dress better if they know they’re going to be on some sort of Telly, and you can have undercover cops chasing themselves whilst a cctv operator keeps telling them about how this suspicious character just went down a side-street!

  • JeremiadBullfrog

    I used to buy into the argument that it’s no different than having a police officer on the beat 24/7, but I think that’s actually the wrong way to think about it.

    Consider the question of whether you’d stop at a stop sign in the middle of nowhere when you were sure no one else was coming. If the point of the law is merely to obey the law, then yes, you should stop. But if the point of the law is to penalize unsafe actions, then if you are 100% certain no one is coming, then it is not unsafe to blow the sign in that instance.

    But with the advent of 100% surveillance cameras, we now have the ability to determine whether or not an action was actually safe or unsafe under the given circumstances. As such, there should be a corresponding change in the laws in order to remove arbitrary penalization of safe actions which under other conditions might be unsafe.

    But this won’t happen because it’s actually a revenue generating scheme. So I’m in general against so-called “safety-promoting” cameras.

  • K

    …privacy isn’t the same thing as liberty

    In the presence of the activist intrusive state (or theocracy in any form), privacy is indeed liberty.

    In the US, the 55mph national speed limit well outstayed it’s original purpose so people just ignored it – as long as a cop wasn’t around. Put speed cameras every 100 yards and the situation becomes far more repressive.

    Are we in the west such cowards that we’ll trade a .001 percent increase in the likelihood we’ll not be the victim of a crime in exchange for not being watched and buggered by bureaucrats all the time? That’s the attitude of cattle, not human beings.

  • PeterT

    “Are we in the west such cowards that we’ll trade a .001 percent increase in the likelihood we’ll not be the victim of a crime in exchange for not being watched and buggered by bureaucrats all the time?”

    Except for the people on this blog, ‘fraid so!

    Privacy is not the same thing as liberty – its the fact that the information is used for something (e.g. giving you a speeding ticket) that is the problem, not the watching as such.

    Granted, giving people information about you also gives them power over you.

  • Ivan Ivanovich

    The comparison between a camera and a cop is NOT ligit. If the cop walks past 100 people on the street how many will he remember the next day. Yes, only the blond in the mini-skirt and the guy with the 12 gauge shotgun. The camera remembers 100%.

  • MicroBalrog

    The fact is, if a police officer followed you around everywhere, you would probably complain – even though technically your privacy is not invaded by them following you in public.

    CCTVs are more similar to that.