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Nothing to Hide: The Dangers of Video Surveillance

In an age when each minute of our lives can be filmed, our every movement traced, our every purchase recorded and analyzed, many surely wonder whether surveillance technologies will be turned against us, used not only to monitor our petty vices, but limit our rights of assembly, speech, and movement. While these concerns may seem farfetched in Western democracies, citizens of most North American and European states now take comprehensive surveillance for granted. The most basic component of the surveillance state is the closed circuit television camera (CCTV). Although the omnipresence of these cameras lends them an air of banality and quiet benevolence, these machines should worry anyone who believes in the right to privacy.

The market for video surveillance only continues to grow. According to a 2011 report, the video surveillance market was projected to grow from $11.5 billion in 2008 to $37.5 billion in 2015. CNN claims that Manhattan contains 4,000 CCTV cameras, nearly half of Chicago’s 10,000. The ubiquity of CCTV cameras extends across the Atlantic. In Britain alone there is one surveillance camera for every eleven people.

According to the journalist Anna Minton, the arguments in favour of video surveillance have their roots in the idea of “defensible space” formulated by the American architect Oscar Newman. By giving communities clearly defined boundaries – like fences equipped with video surveillance technology – Newman hoped to provide residents with a “sense of ownership” while dissuading would-be criminals from entering their neighbourhoods. These ideas were especially popular with American and British policy makers during the 1970s and ‘80s, who put the concept of “defensible space” into practice with the adoption of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design and Secured By Design (SBD), respectively. Minton thinks that these measures do little to prevent crime. She also disputes the claim that CCTV cameras make people feel safe. Based on research she conducted in a London housing estate, Minton finds that while residents originally welcomed the use of CCTV cameras, gates, and internal doors, they also reported feeling increasingly anxious as a result of their implementation. In fact, hiring caretakers proved a much more effective means of building trust and ensuring security in housing estates.

As for their actual effectiveness, CCTV cameras do little to reduce crime. A 2008 study conducted by the Campbell Collaboration and funded by the British Home Office found that while the use of CCTV cameras –along with improved lighting and the presence of security guards- did lead to a modest play online blackjack for fun decrease in vehicle crimes in car parks, they had no effect on other crimes aside from leading to an increase in the reporting of violent crimes like assault and robbery. The study also concludes that CCTV cameras proved more effective in England than in any other country. Another study conducted in 2006 by the U.S Department of Justice found that while CCTV cameras helped reduce crime in small, well-defined sites like parking garages rather than in large areas like housing developments. The study also revealed that CCTV cameras were less effective in reducing violent crime. With regard to terrorism, these results demonstrate that CCTV cameras would not provide a suitable deterrent. Suicide bombers do not fear recognition for obvious reasons whereas those who wish to avoid recognition will simply conceal their faces or wear inconspicuous clothing –just like the perpetrators of ordinary violent crime.

The tepid nature of these results stands in stark relief to the potential for the abuse of video surveillance systems. A report published by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that CCTV cameras facilitated the discriminatory targeting of minority groups, especially black people “who were between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half times more likely to be surveilled than one would expect from their presence in the population.” CCTV cameras also make women easy targets for voyeurism. One British study cited by the ACLU report finds that “fully one in ten women were targeted for entirely voyeuristic reasons.”

Besides facilitating racism and voyeurism, CCTV cameras pose a significant threat to the privacy of all individuals. Under constant watch, citizens may feel compelled to refrain from eccentric behaviour, publicly identifying with alternative or unpopular political organizations and events, or wearing clothing – such as keffiyehs and headscarves – that may attract suspicion. Others, such as Arabs, Muslims, and black people will have to accept an additional opportunity for abuse at the hands of discriminatory police tactics. On a larger scale, one should consider the potential misuses of video surveillance in times of conflict or social upheaval. The ACLU report, for instance, reminds its readers that “the FBI – as well as many individual police departments across the nation – conducted illegal operations to spy upon and harass political activists who were challenging racial segregation and the Vietnam War.” Given the power to watch citizens whenever they leave their homes, these forces will enjoy even greater opportunity to monitor, harass, and intimidate dissenting voices.


-Martin de Bourmont

Image: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Pete Reed

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