CCTV and Big Brother

09/07/2012 09:59 | Updated 07 September 2012

There are some in the UK who fear the increase in 'big brother' CCTV surveillance of UK citizens as they go about their lives. I think that the most obvious CCTV cameras - the ones in the street - do not represent any such threat because they are not being monitored much of the time and in fact don't do what most of us think they do - they do not help in reducing crime or making us safer.
I don't want to undermine the understandable caution many people feel when they hear about the latest gadgets aimed at stopping crime or preventing terrorism when it often involves more of us being watched by people we can't see. This is a healthy as far as I am concerned. - we do need to strike a balance between over surveillance and actually making people safer. CCTV cameras can be misused and we should guard against it. What I object to is the 'big sell' that goes on around CCTV - that is worth spending lots of money on because it makes people in the community feel safer from crime - and actually safer from crime - because in the end it does neither.
Research has shown that CCTV has very little effect on crime levels - at best it reduces car crime in some car parks - but has little or no effect elsewhere. In my experience CCTV is heralded as something that will make people both feel safe and actually safer but then once put in place it disappoints people as over and over again crimes occur in places with cameras (therefore it is not prevented) and the recorded images cannot be used - or are not used to solve the crime. Millions of pounds of tax payer's money have been spent on cameras which simply do not deliver what we were promised.
After the recent riots there were calls for more CCTV cameras and better monitoring of them but the cameras in place did not prevent the rioting. For every image we see of the riots we should remind ourselves that the riots occurred and people lives and property were endangered in spite of cameras.
The Police will make use of camera images especially in the case of serious crimes - riots and terrorism and murders but again this is evidence that the crimes did happen under the cameras. If we are happy to pay out millions of pounds to help the Police investigate the small numbers of serious crimes then that's fine - but this is not what people are told when they are sold the cameras - they think it will actually stop them being murdered or their shop or house being torched by rioters.
Be concerned when you hear the 'great news' of CCTV control rooms being merged so that more cameras are watched by fewer people in some distant control room. Besides the meticulous trawling of images and footage after a crime has happened the main hope for our safety is that a human being will be watching the screen (amongst many screens) when our crime happens - the chances are increasingly against that happening the more screens you have. And in many cases (in my experience) some cameras are not even being monitored at all - they are not being displayed in the control room because there are two few screens. Operators will tend to watch the busy town centres rather than the cameras in the less 'interesting areas'.
I may well be criticised for possibly causing people to feel less safe because they thought the cameras would stop a crime happening to them - but I prefer to say what I am saying rather than even more people finding out for themselves through bitter experience. I don't doubt that CCTV remains a popular idea - especially with people who have not had to rely on it
If we do have money to spend on crime prevention then we should spend less on CCTV and more on better lighting and other crime prevention techniques - because there is better evidence that this will prevent crime more effectively.
Just remember - every time you see a crime recorded on CCTV in the news - remember that the cameras did not prevent it.