Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg

Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg
Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg © Gernot Keller, 2007
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Blinkered JusticeXtra by Mark Gee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Surveillance society: visibility and accessibility

(c) Paul Vlaar
My post on Oliver Letwin and surveillance last week got me thinking about the effectiveness of CCTV and what surveillance might mean in the UK today. By googling the words CCTV crime effectiveness, I found much literature suggesting that CCTV is ineffective as a situational crime prevention (SCP) strategy. There are two theoretical approaches that underpin SCP. Rational choice theory (RCT) is based on a rational consideration of the benefits gained from committing a particular crime balanced against the risks, and routine activity theory (RAT) seeks to remove suitable targets by installing suitable guardians (i.e. CCTV).

Although my research is far from scientific, I am attempting to be objective by using the following documents based on their appearance at the top of this search. The Telegraph article is here and The Guardian article here. The House of Commons briefing note refers to this NACRO report, this Campbell Collaboration review and this Gill et al study. The NACRO report refers to the reasoning behind the use of CCTV, whilst the latter two studies have been written with the support of the Home Office. Therefore, none of these documents have been written from an anti-CCTV stance.  

According to NACRO:
The mechanisms under which CCTV aims to reduce crime are based upon the following (largely simplistic) assumptions:
1 Deterrence. The potential offender becomes aware of the presence of CCTV, assesses the risks of offending in this location to outweigh the benefits and chooses either not to offend or to offend elsewhere.
2 Efficient deployment. CCTV cameras allow those monitoring the scene to determine whether police assistance is required. This ensures that police resources are called upon only when necessary.
3 Self discipline
By potential victims. They are reminded of the ‘risk’ of crime, therefore altering their behaviour accordingly. 
By potential offenders. Through a process similar to that described by Foucault in his discussion of Bentham’s Panopticon, the threat of potential surveillance (whether the cameras are actually being monitored may be irrelevant) acts to produce a self discipline in which individuals police their own behaviour...the CCTV camera may produce a self-discipline through fear of surveillance, whether real or imagined.
4 Presence of a capable guardian. The ‘Routine Activity Theory’ suggests that for a crime to be committed there must be a motivated offender, a suitable target and the absence of a capable guardian. Any act that prevents the convergence of these elements will reduce the likelihood of a crime taking place. CCTV, as a capable guardian, may help to reduce crime.
5 Detection. CCTV cameras capture images of offences taking place. In some cases this may lead to punishment and the removal of the offenders’ ability to offend (either due to incarceration, or increased monitoring and supervision)...
The Campbell Collaboration drew the following conclusions on the effectives of CCTV:
Exactly what the optimal circumstances are for effective use of CCTV schemes is not entirely clear at present, and this needs to be established by future evaluation research (see below). But it is important to note that the success of the CCTV schemes in car parks was mostly limited to a reduction in vehicle crimes (the only crime type measured in 5 of the 6 schemes) and camera coverage was high for those evaluations that reported on it. In the national British evaluation of the effectiveness of CCTV, Farrington (2007b) found that effectiveness was significantly correlated with the degree of coverage of the CCTV cameras, which was greatest in car parks. Furthermore, all 6 car park schemes included other interventions, such as improved lighting and security guards. It is plausible to suggest that CCTV schemes with high coverage and other interventions and targeted on vehicle crimes are effective.
Conversely, the evaluations of CCTV schemes in city and town centers and public housing measured a much larger range of crime types and only a small number of studies involved other interventions. These CCTV schemes, as well as those focused on public transport, did not have a significant effect on crime.
Gill et al concluded:
Whilst most systems revealed little overall effect on crime levels, there were a number of small-scale impacts that were explored. Some of these represent successes, which are worthy of comment...However, it is important to reiterate that few results were statistically significant, and most could be explained by random variations in crime, or other confounding factors. Overall, just two schemes, City Outskirts and Hawkeye, can be said to have experienced a statistically significant reduction in recorded crime relative to the control
area, and only in the latter it is plausible that the role of CCTV was a significant factor in this reduction...
On the other hand, where there were initial suggestions of success, any measured change in crime following CCTV installation could not always be attributed to CCTV once confounding factors and random fluctuations were taken into account...
Overall, the impact of CCTV has been variable. Elsewhere (Gill et al, 2005) we have emphasised the variety of issues that impacts on CCTV working. In short, it is important to remember that the characteristics of areas and the crime problems generated in them varies considerably, and the suitability of CCTV will depend, at the very least, on the nature of those problems, the presence of other measures, and the commitment and skills of management and staff to making CCTV work. The belief that CCTV alone can counter complex social problems is unrealistic in the extreme. At best CCTV can work alongside other measures to generate some changes, but it is no easy panacea, and there is a lot still to be learnt about how to use it to best effect.
Overall then, there is little causal evidence to sustain the continued blanket use of CCTV, with many voices are now calling for CCTV to be used in a more targeted manner.

In terms of SCP, both RCT and RAT lack evidence that might suggest that either theory is valid. Although many of the findings have considered alternative approaches to improve the effectiveness of CCTV,  such as its targeted use, none have questioned whether CCTV can ever be an effective crime prevention option in today's society. 

My article on Letwin and surveillance referred to YouTube and its omnipresence; a massive blurring of the boundary between private and public.  The vast majority of PCs and laptops today come equipped with a camera, thereby allowing the user to upload and distribute even the most personal of moving pictures of themselves for mass public consumption. Furthermore, reality TV has pervaded the public consciousness for well over a decade. The use of CCTV and CCTV-like images have fuelled a variety of TV programmes, from the likes of Big Brother to the CSI franchise. The technological advances in digital photography and camcorders, from the rise of the digital camera to the preponderance of the camera/smart phone see people click-clicking and shooting everywhere. Whether we be in public, or in private, cameras are ready to capture our acts. The use of cameras has become a cultural norm.

In this regard, I note Groombridge’s paper, “Crime control or crime culture TV”, in which he looks at sociological theories of surveillance and media and film studies (predominantly, psychoanalytical, feminist) perspectives on gazing and being gazed at. Of particular interest to this article is Groombridge’s notion of an ‘omnicon’. 

Perhaps I am describing an 'omnicon' where all watch, or might potentially, watch all. CCTV would then only be objectionable for being closed and our resistance should be aimed at cameras and systems which are not fully democratic.
File:Bansky one nation under cctv.jpg
(c) oogiboig

Critics from a human rights perspective often refer to our ‘surveillance society’, and the breaches of these rights from the likes of CCTV. I think that this misses the point. Theoretical ideas of surveillance, from Bentham to Foucault, imply that we are being watched but that we do not know it for sure, and so regulate ourselves in case. The term 'surveillance' hints at the idea of being watched from afar, undercover, almost paparazzi-like. However, as I have argued above, cameras have become a social norm by which people document their lives. For me, we are immersed in, and we take part in, a ‘surveillance society.’ The difference is that this is about accessibility, and I consider that there is an ‘accessible surveillance society’ and an ‘inaccessible surveillance society.’

Certain types of ‘inaccessible surveillance society’ are forms of concern. For example, I know that the data that I hand over to the likes of Amazon when I purchase goods from their site are being used to create a virtual facsimile of the type of person that I am. I do not have access to this facsimile, nor do I see the physical evidence of where my personal data is stored. It is not just online that I worry about an ‘inaccessible surveillance society.’ Other physical surveillance includes ideas of secret police, such as the KGB, or even undercover police. These are the worrying aspects of a ‘surveillance society.’

That said, an ‘inaccessible surveillance society’ need not be exclusively worrisome. For example, we do not see boundaries as they are symbolic. Therefore, changes to rules and laws are abstract means of effecting changes for the better (not always, granted), but at least the public are able to monitor them even though they do not own them.

The paradox of cameras and their use in surveillance over the last couple of decades, is that their prevalence and accessibility to the state and the public, has led to them becoming a part of the cultural fabric. They have become background music, thereby rendering them invisible. And that was not the purpose envisaged in terms of crime prevention. Which brings me round to my theory, ‘surveillance accessibility theory’ (SAT); when states use surveillance techniques that are equally accessible to the general public, that these same mechanisms are rendered less effective in their deterrence of crime, precisely because of their prevalence. We are now living in the time of an 'omnicon.'

Recent international news items appear to support this theory. The camera phone footage/stills of Gaddafi’s dead body spread, suggest that his death was not as originally claimed by the NTC. Given that the reasons for Gaddafi’s death are at least vague, it is entirely possible that a brutal crime was committed in full sight of a camera. The killing of Wang Yue in Guangdong province, China, is another example, albeit this time caught on CCTV.

Back in the UK, The Independent reports that there is more support for CCTV in wake of the riots. Despite the widespread use of CCTV and camera/smart phones, many of those committing ‘crimes’ during the UK riots seemed oblivious, and some even proud to perform for mass public consumption. In all these cases, the cameras are visible and culturally accessible, yet appear equally invisible to those committing the criminal acts.

The government appears to be relying solely on an argument for the use of CCTV cameras as being necessary for detection. CCTV is actively being promoted as being the ideal mechanism for catching those involved in the UK riots. Yet, just a few years ago, partners in government, the Liberal-Democrats, used the freedom of information act to obtain information that suggested that approximately 80% of crimes went unsolved, despite the widespread use of CCTV.

It is quite startling that the government seem to have scaled back on the assumptions that underpin the reasons for the use of CCTV (see NACRO above). The government, then, appears to have little faith in ideas of CCTV as an effective deterrent, guardian or means of disciplining selves. CCTV may yet come to de deployed more efficiently, as put forward by the Home Office reports referred to above, but it has not been effective as yet.

There are various reports on public attitude surveys towards CCTV, and the notion that it makes the public feel safe. CCTV was originally supposed to deter criminals, yet I am unable to find any qualitative evidence that might explain whether any prisoners considered CCTV in the commission of their crime, and if they had, why they had still chosen to go ahead with their crime. Research into prisoners thoughts on CCTV may open up further understandings of the (in)effectiveness of CCTV, and may build on SAT.

Obviously, this theory needs refining. There may be many other socio-cultural reasons that might help explain why these crimes were committed, but CCTV did not deter these acts. I no longer think that we can ignore the cultural significance of celebrity and the visibility and accessibility of technology in understanding why surveillance cameras are not as effective as initially hoped for.

Anyone have any thoughts or suggestions?