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UK government to make CCTV useful?

December 15, 2009

That’s the way The Register puts it anyway… and there is more than a grain of truth in this. After 20 years of open-street video surveillance in Britain, it is not a safer place and the cameras are not event helping to solve that many crimes, let alone preventing them (which, let us not forget) was what was promised back at the beginning. The government in the UK is now (finally) becoming concerned about this and is apparently going to appoint a CCTV Commissioner or something similar and try to rationalise the crazy landscape of video surveillance in Britain.

However, the key lesson from the fact that video surveillance doesn’t really work should surely be that they might want to start reducing the numbers of cameras and putting the investment into something else. This isn’t going to happen. Instead, the UK government is still promoting video surveillance around the world and more and more places in every country seem to think that they should install CCTV because it ‘works in Britain.’ I even saw one story the other day saying that there had been no formal studies of the effectiveness of CCTV, which of course is simply not true – there have and they generally show little effect on crime, but the conclusion of this article was that in the absence of evidence, cameras were a sensible precaution.

How does that logic work? Since when did effective public policy on crime consist of throwing money at shiny toys? I think it was Harold Macmillan who said that when we need to be seen to be doing something, form a committee. In a high-tech age, people aren’t bought off by committees any more, but shiny gadgets will do it. And if the shine wears off, if the ordinary dull old cameras now don’t work, then there will be even shinier and newer mobile cameras, flying cameras, and probably cameras with frickin’ laser beams… Public policy on crime seems to be stuck on a technological treadmill. It’s time to step off.

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