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Lies, Damned Lies and CCTV Statistics…

October 22, 2009

Earlier today, I reported on reports that claimed that 96% of US citizens support video surveillance. Now, thanks to Vicki Contavespi, and the people at BRS Labs who commissioned the survey from Harris Interactive, I have the raw figures. And, unsurprisingly enough, whilst they aren’t ‘lies’, they don’t quite show what the headlines suggested – just as my headline, a quote often attributed of course to Disraeli, is also an overstatement of the case at hand. This is a very interesting survey. There were quite a few questions asked, and I don’t have time to go through all of them here now, but I will just deal with the question of ‘support’ for video surveillance and break it down just a little more.

First of all, the main questions on the acceptability of video surveillance (and other surveillance techniques) are couched in an particular way that is common in market research. The lead question is “How strongly do you agree or disagree with each of the following statements?” There is then a list of statements, which each have four options: strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, and strongly disagree. There is no ‘neutral / don’t care / no opinion’ option, which might have taken out many of those in the ‘somewhat’ categories on either side. The headline figures used then, of course, elide the ‘strongly’ and ‘somewhat’ figures.

For video surveillance, there are two main statements, firstly, “The federal government should be able to utilize video surveillance as long as my personal privacy is not invaded”, and secondly, “Local law enforcement should be able to use surveillance cameras to monitor public places.” The first question already contains a bias, in that is specifies a situation of no privacy invasion. This effectively nullifies the most common objection to video surveillance, and especially for those for whom the Federal Government is a intrinsically suspicious entity. The second, interestingly, doesn’t have this proviso, but then ‘local law enforcement’ isn’t ‘the Feds’ and generally does not attract the same antipathy. But the lack of a qualifying statement might provide a better clue to US public attitudes on video surveillance overall. For the first statement, the ‘headline’ figure of agreement is 82% and the second is 78%. However this disguises the fact that ‘strong agreement’ is much more limited, 36 and 35% respectively. And if you add up the ‘somewhat agree’ and ‘somehat disagree’ figures, you get 57% and 58%, which indicates to me that the majority of US people don’t have strong opinions for or against CCTV. See – statistics are all about what you are looking for in them!

What is even more interesting is that the question was then asked: “Which of the following aspects of video surveillance cameras, if any, concern you?” You would think that, given the headline and press release, that the survey showed no real concerns about CCTV. But that really isn’t the case at all. In fact, 88% of respondents said they were concerned by at least one of the listed aspects of video surveillance. Now remember, you’ve only got 18% or 22% who said that they disagreed with CCTV in terms of the question posed above, so this means that even most of the people who supported CCTV to whatever degree of strength, had concerns and most had more than one concern. This is quite striking. The main concerns were “not knowing what will be done with the information that is gathered ” (66%), “The fact that recorded footage can be used to mistakenly incriminate me” (61%), “Not knowing the background of whoever may be watching” (60%), “Not knowing how often and where I might be watched” (50%) and “The fact that photographs can be taken of me without permission” (48%). The only one on which there was significant difference between men and women seems (and I haven’t done any statistical analysis of the difference) to be over the concern about how often and where people might be watched, about which women were more likely to be concerned than men. In fact, in the whole survey, there appear to be no real overt differences in response based on gender.

So where, you might well be asking, does this 96% support figure come from? I searched through the tables some distance for the 96% figure before I found it. It certainly doesn’t refer to generalised support, but comes in response to the following question: “Which of the following areas, if any, do you think should be monitored by video surveillance in an effort to help protect U.S. citizens?” A-ha! So we have a question that implies the use of video surveillance somewhere, and that it will be used specifically to help protect US citizens (none of those foreigners!). The question is clearly pushing the respondents towards a positive answer. But here too things are not quite what the headlines claimed. Certainly, 96% of respondents said that video surveillance should be used in some areas. However, it is only in “Airports” (92%), “Public transportation” (85%) and “Seaports” (82%) that there is an overwhelming vote of confidence (though quite why seaports are considered to be less at risk or would benefit less from video surveillance than airports, I am not quite sure – the ghosts of 9/11 hover, I suppose).

“Public schools/Universities” barely scrape a majority (53%), and one wonders what the figures would be if they split universities and schools (and indeed different levels of school). “Playgrounds” only hit 39% – not so much of the common British ‘think of the kiddies’ paranoia here perhaps – “Businesses” – where of course surveillance is actually more likely to be found than anywhere else! – doesn’t manage a third (32%) and “Local neighborhoods”, which is the only unequivocal ‘public space’ category is only on 22%. Why not parks? Why not city centre streets? It is of course these places where the real controversy and the real fire and debate over CCTV lies. And the indications from this survey are that the more personal, the more intimate, the more there is a sense of ‘community’, the less likely US citizens are to accept video surveillance, even if it is couched in the overly positive way it is here.

And there is a question whose answers demonstrate further the complexity here. And, ironically, the percentage of respondents who replied to the question “Which of the following, if any, do you think are currently the biggest threats to your personal privacy?” with one of more concerns was – you guessed it – 96%! The major concerns were actually mostly from private or criminal surveillance: “identity theft” (74%), “Internet security threats” (70%) and “Unknown individuals who handle my personal information” (60%). Only 33% were concerned about federal or local government, but this isn’t surprising when this category is headed, as it is in the survey, “Big Brother”! Who is going to admit to being scared of ‘Big Brother’? And if you are going to give a silly popular stereotype as a potential answer, then the other categories should be similarly labelled… And why wasn’t this 96% the lead-in for the media?

As I said, there is a lot more in here too, and despite its flaws, this is an interesting survey which has much to it than meets the eye if you just read the media reports.

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