Friday, 11 January 2013

CCTV: What is it good for?

Funny Pic Dump (18)It was the book club's last meeting of 2012, the Xmas Xtravaganza, and we decided to do something different and set an open topic: CCTV. Unrestricted by the concerns of a single article, people brought to the table a variety of questions and perspectives on the topic: Has the advent of CCTV heralded Foucault’s predictions of a panopticon society? Is it a legitimate tool of modern security and a by-product of increased desire for order in a consumer society? Does the rise in CCTV increase feelings of safety or personal anxiety? Why has it become so widely accepted?
The topic of CCTV provided scope for an emotive turn in our DA discussion, with some people discovering a previously hidden libertarian! CCTV acts like a probing eye, invading the most mundane of our day-to-day moments, contravening our civil liberties. Conversely, others did not see CCTV as an evolution of something sinister, rather a sidebar in the technological age; a commodity which is perhaps less widespread and effective than realised (see for example the varying levels of competence with which CCTV is actually used).
The primary concern of DA members opposed to security cameras related to privacy.  Everyone is familiar with embarrassing images of anonymous strangers captured on CCTV which wind-up immortalised on a CCTV show-reel amusing audiences on YouTube or late night TV; what if that was to happen to you? Given the prevalence of these images it is no a wonder that feelings of invasion and humiliation are so closely linked to CCTV. However, surely the device to capture people’s embarrassing moments in this manner is less likely to be peering down from a city corner, and much more likely to be resting innocuously in people’s pockets? The proliferation of the smartphone enables users to capture images and videos of anyone around and within an instant upload it up onto the internet. Moreover, people have few qualms uploading photos from their own life, their own embarrassing moments and nights out on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Flickr and any other social website you care to mention. These sites generally don’t just contain images, comments, dates and details of other people, but also personal information like date of birth, relationship status and even current location. Is it duplicitous to be so vehemently opposed to CCTV while giving out more personal data than a security camera could ever capture? Viewed this way, is the sting taken out of the idea of CCTV as personal invasion?
The voluntary nature of people's usage of these sites is of course the counter-argument. Perhaps it is because great swathes of people now have so much control over their image that it feels like an even greater impropriety when it is taken out of their hands.
It was suggested that the idea of privacy of movement and action in a public space is a paradox worthy of Catch-22, however. In the end some people proposed that rather than right to privacy, the use of CCTV images could be restrained by stringent data protection laws, making company’s liable for the uploading of images on the internet. For those of us DA members who viewed the CCTV threat as something shadowy, unproven and verging on the mythic, are we blithely ignoring the realities? In order for CCTV images to remain private, there is a long chain of actors, each of whom must conform to various conditions, complying with guidelines and regulations each in their turn. It is a succession of 'ifs'. The difference, too, between a surveillance network controlled by the state, and those under private control, are pertinent. The reduced options for redress when the operator of the CCTV system is a private company make the use of corporate and private CCTV and the storage of data a pressing issue. The state is taking tentative steps to address the issue of privately-operated CCTV by re-examining the provisions of the 2006 Privacy Bill. In light of the expansion of private surveillance, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has pledged a review of the Bill in order to safeguard the privacy of individuals (for a discussion of the issue see here).
It may be insightful to tease out some of the popular and opposing feelings about CCTV, those with more apathetic responses as well as the visceral sense of wrong felt by others. Are the more apathetic among us simply more accepting of the new ‘criminologies of everyday life’? Is it naïve to not see this as something more insidious, the responsbilization of civil society; the wider acceptance of the criminal as a rational opportunist? Does this position ignore or underplay the serious risk of destabilising social cohesion and increase state-scepticism in favour of mass individualisation and devolution of crime prevention? Popular ideas of CCTV are often connected to Orwellian prophesies of oppressive state power, yet if the above is the case then the growth of CCTV is actually connected to weakening state control and the awareness that the state on its own is inadequate to tackle the challenge of crime.
Contrastingly, there are those who are affronted by CCTV. Is it possible that some people are not used to the 24-hour glare of surveillance; being made to feel like a potential threat? Perhaps for some the spread of CCTV uncomfortably blurs the line between us and them, the suspect population. Is it that many people in fact don’t want CCTV to fall out of use, but instead have it focused on those who are seen as deviant? Or does the use of CCTV create the deviant population? as such, could the increased use of security surveillance in certain space entail a deepening of the trenches between various social groups? Outside the urban and commercial settings, it would be illuminating to know what the use of CCTV in residential areas represents to the people in these communities. Do they feel their privacy is undermined, or does the use of cameras increase a sense of safety? Interestingly, some commentators have suggested that widespread use of CCTV actually tends to undermine natural surveillance, thereby perhaps scoring an own goal for crime prevention.
No one happened across any research which explored these questions (of course that doesn’t mean such research doesn’t exist!). We felt there was a strong case for greater analytical focus to be spent exploring the increased use of surveillance technology. Perhaps, criminologically, the focus on CCTV is more spread out, it is only one node along a widening continuum of technologies of security. Furthermore, among some scholars the increased use of everyday security is considered one of the indices of changing modes of governance and an acceptance that the state has a limited capacity to address crime. As such, CCTV doesn't get, or maybe need its own solo analytical outing.

Several DA members were impressed by the work of Goold et al, which off-loaded some of the emotional and moral weight of this topic exploring the rise of security devices through a sociology of consumption framework. They describe CCTV as a common-place good, something uncontroversial and ubiquitous. Interviewing buyers of security goods, as well as those who work in the security business, the initial findings suggest that rather than people gaining a sense of order, power and safety, buying security feels less like an act of fulfilment and more like a ‘de facto taxation’; a nuisance and an irritant.
There was some evidence that CCTV does have an impact on criminal activity. For example, the Campbell Collaboration in 2008 reported that CCTV did have a 'modest but significant desirable effect.' However, it was most effective when used in very specific circumstances, namely as a means of reducing car crime in car-parks. The results supported the continued use of CCTV, but in a narrow, more targeted, fashion. Considering that CCTV is the single most heavily funded crime prevention method employed in the United Kingdom (where the study was carried out), such advice would seem to herald a chance for money-saving opportunities. However, there seems to be no sign of innovating the recommended targeted use of the technology.

Yet the promise of CCTV and the political gain attendant on this remains a political given. As such the rise of surveillance seems set to continue for the foreseeable future. Perhaps it is simply the case that CCTV is more for fear of crime than crime itself. Does the presence of CCTV itself act as a cause of anxiety? This was one of the keenest questions posed by the DA and one to which we could find no answer. CCTV acts as an external sign of action, politicians can be seen to be doing something. This was held as one of the most immediate causes of the number of cameras on our streets, this combined with a general lack of understanding on the scope of what such methods can actually achieve.
In practical terms CCTV appears to be quite specious at best. However, we found this topic to have more depth than it appears, and like all good debates we didn’t all quite agree in the end about what the rising use of CCTV means and what its practical and symbolic functions were. To understand its rise and subsequent acceptance it is best understood in wider political or cultural framework.
This month's blog was written by Louise Brangan and Lynsey Black.

The views expressed herein are those of the authors' alone.

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