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Which is worse: no surveillance or incompetent surveillance?

March 26, 2009

Ok, so I know it is a provocative and incomplete question, but it’s one I am forced to ask this morning as a case in Australia, where a badly implemented video surveillance system in Sydney airport is being blamed for the failure of a court case over a brawl in which a man was killed.

According to reports, the police are quoted as saying that they were “hindered in their search for images of the alleged offenders by an outdated and fragmented surveillance system”. They claim that the four or five different uncoordinated systems in and around the airport, all with different recording locations and formats, make it difficult for them to gather evidence. When you look closer however, it does seem to be the that the only real problem relates to one of the systems which was very old and could not record from more than one of its camera simultaneously.

Although it notes that there are other ‘community concerns’ than just having complete surveillance (of course…), the newspaper seems to be accepting the objectivity of claims that this is a problem of a lack of centralisation. Fear of terrorism is as usual the motivation for this, although the unlikely occurrence of terrorist events and the fact that the incident in question is a biker brawl (i.e. a domestic gang issue) means that this link is tenuous. It also should lead one to question why such a violent disturbance was allowed to progress to the point where someone was killed in an airport. That has very little to do with poor CCTV and much more to do with a failure of more basic security and a lack of care for passengers on the ground more generally. Perhaps the real issue should whether we are becoming so reliant on technological systems of monitoring that we are forgetting the protective purpose of security and the rather more human ways in which this could be improved.

The police apparently also have eye-witnesses, so you have to wonder what the agenda is here. Is it simply a case of police frustration? Would it really help if the systems were all joined up and run centrally? Or is this just a problem with one system? Is this case being used deliberately to try to create a wave of public outrage upon which more intensive joined-up video surveillance can be implemented? I don’t know the answers, but someone in Australia should be asking rather more searching questions than just ‘why don’t the cameras work better?’

(Thanks to Roger Clarke – who does indeed ask difficult questions – for pointing out this story)

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