Security-Theater Cameras Coming to New York

In this otherwise lopsided article about security cameras, this one quote stands out:

But Steve Swain, who served for years with the London Metropolitan Police and its counter-terror operations, doubts the power of cameras to deter crime.

"I don't know of a single incident where CCTV has actually been used to spot, apprehend or detain offenders in the act," he said, referring to the London system. Swain now works for Control Risk, an international security firm.

Asked about their role in possibly stopping acts of terror, he said pointedly: "The presence of CCTV is irrelevant for those who want to sacrifice their lives to carry out a terrorist act."


Swain does believe the cameras have great value in investigation work. He also said they are necessary to reassure the public that law enforcement is being aggressive.

"You need to do this piece of theater so that if the terrorists are looking at you, they can see that you've got some measures in place," he said.

Did you get that? Swain doesn't believe that cameras deter crime, but he wants cities to spend millions on them so that the terrorists "can see that you've got some measures in place."

Anyone have any idea why we're better off doing this than other things that may actually deter crime and terrorism?

Posted on August 6, 2007 at 3:23 PM • 37 Comments


PeterAugust 6, 2007 3:37 PM

"Anyone have any idea why we're better off doing this than other things that may actually deter crime and terrorism?"

Yes. Money, greed and politics (with a small 'p'). CCTV is one of the very many deep troughs that our lords and masters like to feed at; This is a bit like the old "what do you mean $20,000 for a wrench ?" method of making cash move from the public purse to private pockets without anyone being allowed to object because it is for our own good.

jonnyAAugust 6, 2007 3:57 PM

I personally don't care if the terrorists "see that you've got some measures in place." That's utterly ridiculous. How about we just focus on preventing terrorism rather than letting the terrorist see that we are feebly trying by watching them commit their acts.

MarkAugust 6, 2007 4:00 PM

If it is only about showing presence, then they might as well put up the fake cameras you find in the mom-and-pop shops that can't afford cctv :-P

RoxanneAugust 6, 2007 4:03 PM

Why do it? Because of that part in there where they can use the cameras in investigative work. Cameras got a big boost in Britain a decade or so ago when they nabbed the juvenile kidnappers (and eventual killers) of a toddler. Everyone will point to that *forever* to justify surveillance cameras.

I think that the process could be slowed by requiring that all public cameras - that is, installed by the public, presumably for the public - be required to be online, accessible by everyone with internet access. This would increase the liklihood of the cameras actually being watched at any given moment - and someone could raise the alert if a crime occurred - and might truly discourage wayward behavior. Require that a public camera truly *be* public, and some of them might go away.

Right now, face it, there's a presumption that unless you're in a casino or discount store, no one is watching anyway.

Statist PresumptionAugust 6, 2007 4:08 PM

"Anyone have any idea why we're better off doing this than other things that may actually deter crime and terrorism?"

How about to mollify the cries of leftist-liberals and rightist-conservatives alike that government "DO something" to solve the problem?

You don't get to clamour for government interference in economic and social matters on Monday, and then complain on Friday that the government officials you've demanded take action are performing inefficiently, poorly, and with little to no accountability.

The problem starts with your belief that you DO get those things with government solutions. You don't, no matter how much you think you should. Such is not the nature of government solutions, by definition.

SpiderAugust 6, 2007 4:09 PM

I'm not sure Bruce actually read the article very closely.

"Baltimore police officials told CNN the city had 500 cameras and crime was reduced by 17 percent in neighborhoods where they are located."

The quote included in Bruce's blurb refers to terrorism only. Its been quite successful fighting crime US cities, they don't really even pretend its to fight terrorism. In Chicago they exclusively put them in neighborhoods that are high crime and have open air drug markets. All of the Chicago cameras have been paid for by money seized from drug busts.

They do reduce normal crime. Of course they also raise interesting privacy questions and fears about implementation of a police state. As with the internet, we will have to determine the correct balance between crime fighting and privacy.

RichAugust 6, 2007 4:21 PM

If improved investigative capabilities lead to more convictions and criminals see that as a deterent to crime, then the added investigative capabilities could reduce crime.

That's a big "if", but it wouldn't surprise me to be true.

Then one needs to weigh that gain against the loss in privacy.

Phil NelsonAugust 6, 2007 4:25 PM

It could also be argued that most of the crimes those cameras would stop are victimless crimes, anyway.

It works great: make something illegal, then justify your security theater by pointing to how much it works in stopping that crime.

AndrewAugust 6, 2007 4:27 PM

Security cameras stop crime every day. Of course, that is because most security companies have competent people watching them and reacting accordingly.

I can think of no incentive that would keep a TSA-like civil service camera operator from goofing off instead of watching cameras.

timAugust 6, 2007 4:36 PM

the "doubts the power of cameras to deter crime" part is a bit misleading as he seems not to be referring to crime but to terrorism and bruce does seem to be equivocating between the two quite frequently - after all terrorism isn't that much of a threat... really.

Besides, there is another facet of cctv that isn't mentioned and probably far outweighs the deterrent value is that of it's use as an investigative tool.
I'm pretty much against most forms of surveillance but (and this is probably because i'm used to living in the UK), i'm actually quite receptive to all the cctv we have here (and it has come to my rescue a number of times)

And in response to Roxannes post, there a number of places that have trialled putting the local cctv onto the community cable tv. I'm not sure how well that went. Also, there's quite a fun thing you can do with google by searching for the usual camera interface names to find cctv cameras around the uk.

Rob "Orwell was an optimist" MayfieldAugust 6, 2007 4:54 PM

Authorities use CCTV to collect bulk information, which is *not* evidence. This information can later be used to fit to the evidence needed, rather than relying on real investigation and real "police work". There is a significant and real danger to innocent people in using bulk data to fit evidence to crimes as opposed to the other way around.

Geoff LaneAugust 6, 2007 5:01 PM

Cameras prevent crime? Not all studies agree. In some cases, crime was just pushed into adjacent areas without cameras.

Cameras help investigate terrorism? I for one would prefer not to be blown up rather than the police have access to high quality images of the event. Money spent on cameras is money not spent on targeted surveillance.

On a slightly related point. The New Scientist has a tiny item on the amount of "digital evidence" in just one terrorism investigation.
6 terabytes of data; 8000 CDs; 200 phones; 400 computers and 70 building searches in multiple countries. It's not clear if the 6Tb of data includes the CDs or computer hard disks.

JackG'tAugust 6, 2007 5:19 PM

Knowledge that you're on camera is likely to play more and more, I would think, into planning crime or espionage or any clandestine activity. One could decide in advance on dress and specific moves, but also plan who else would be in the field of view at the time. If an operative were going to drop an encrypted CD behind a bush, for instance, he might arrange to have a couple of colleagues passing at the time so as to obscure the view, and a few easily recognizable colleagues walking behind; the latter would be useful in attesting that he didn't drop a thing.

A risk of thinking like the bad guys, for security purposes, is that some in authority are likely to suspect you of being one of them.

SpiderAugust 6, 2007 5:50 PM

@Geoff Lane

Even if crime is moved rather than deterred, that can be a great thing. Think about it, with the strategic placement of these cameras you could make housing projects crime free. You could provide crime free corridors for kids to go to schools. The technology has some very scary potential, but its also very promising.

imlocationAugust 6, 2007 6:02 PM

Law Enforcement are the people who have to investigate after a terrorist attack. Cameras help them put the pieces together after the bomb goes off.

Law Enforcement's job is to prevent AND investigate. Most people would like them to spend all their money on preventing terrorist attacks, but their agenda pushes them to spend a little on beefing up their investigating equipment as well.

It doesn't matter that cameras don't prevent terrorist attacks. Since they help police deal with the aftermath of an attack, to them they are a justifiable way of spending money earmarked to "fight terror".

Brandioch ConnerAugust 6, 2007 7:02 PM

"Think about it, with the strategic placement of these cameras you could make housing projects crime free. "

If cameras worked like that we'd have them all over already.

From the article: "Baltimore police officials told CNN the city had 500 cameras and crime was reduced by 17 percent in neighborhoods where they are located."

So, 100 crimes became 83 crimes. You still have 83% of the crime AFTER the cameras go in. Now to me that means that something isn't right. Why so much crime when you have surveillance systems on site?

Because cameras do not work like that. For multiple reasons.

#1. The criminals see the cameras and shoot them.

#2. The criminals see the cameras and commit their crimes out of view of the cameras.

#3. Even when the dumber criminals do manage to get themselves filmed committing and obvious crime, our justice system is so backlogged that they plea bargain their way down to something that will have them back on the street in a week.

Remember, they aren't "criminals" because they commit "crimes".

They commit "crimes" because they are "criminals".

Photographing them will not turn them from "criminal" to "good citizen".

Pat CahalanAugust 6, 2007 7:40 PM

@ Brandioch Conner

re #1, #2, #3:

You forgot #4: The criminals know the cameras are there and really don't care... because for most of the crimes they commit (up to and including bank robbery) getting caught on film isn't that big of a deal, as the cameras are (to put it lightly) not of the highest quality.

If cameras really deterred crime there would be no bank robberies.

Now, if you commit an unusual crime (such as bombing the Federal Building in OK or going on a murder spree), significant effort will be taken to correlate images amongst a collection of cameras, and/or multiple shots will be released to the public on the news, and then you might get caught because your brother recognizes your walk, or one camera traces you to a rental car that can be tracked, etc.

Am I a Terrorist for Posting this?August 6, 2007 8:11 PM

Interesting how they publicly tell people this. The smart, patient terrorists are probably reading this blog and others (boingboing, Daily Kos, etc.) for tips and are looking for holes... this isn't to say I think Leftist Blogs are terrorist supporting organizations...

I think just the opposite; I.E. by exposing the systems flaws we come closer to a better system.

Hiding a systems flaws doesn't fix them.

Bryan McGintyAugust 6, 2007 9:01 PM

Prior to 1985 I worked at the traffic signal control centre in Sydney. We had CCTV with which we monitored the traffic lights in Sydney's CBD. There was a police presence, and I can recall two occasions where the police used the CCTV to apprehend criminals:
One was when a guy robbed a bank on one of the major thoroughfares out of the city during peak hour. The robber attempted to cross the road and was standing on the median strip. The police in the centre kept the lights on green until police investigating the robbery arrived and could arrest him.
The other case was when a "Mr Brown" attempted to extort QANTAS by threatening to blow up a flight. The police in the centre managed to follow the criminal after he picked up the payoff.
I have vague recollections of another incident as well. In this case the CCTV was used for a different main purpose. I am not sure of the value of installing CCTV just for the possibility of apprehending a potential criminal.

AndrewAugust 6, 2007 9:13 PM

@Geoff & Spider

>> In some cases, crime was just pushed into adjacent areas without cameras.

This is classic criminology, to be specific, displacement theory. In the private security world, clients don't care as long as the crime is displaced off their property.

Of course, one ends up displacing the crime either into a large, diffuse area (like most urban downtowns) or into a ghetto (such as the aforementioned 'projects'.) I have reason to believe that certain cities deliberately tolerate ultra-high-crime areas as a means of keeping the rest of the city relatively crime free. Especially when high traffic throughput combines with low property values to create the ideal open-air drug mart.

I don't care how many cameras you have, unless you're staffed like a sporting event and equipped like a SWAT team (and paid like one, too) you're not going to totally displace crime in a high crime area. You're going to move it from street to street, chasing it and forcing an arms race in counter-surveillance techniques.

Santa Ana, CA tried this when they noticed that bright streetlights cut down on drug sales. First came the streetlights, then came the BB guns to shoot out the lights. Plexiglas streetlights, .22 rifles. Armored streetlights, high-powered rifles. I don't know what the next escalation was; I think the city ran out of money before the gangbangers ran out of shooters. This was just about when gunfire detection was coming in, so I suppose that would be next and silencers would be the countermeasure.

A massive camera system in the 'projects' would need to be backed up by response in force, especially at first. Otherwise you end up with a lot of vandalized cameras and maybe a couple dead CCTV installers.

John MooreAugust 6, 2007 10:31 PM

Gee, 2008 is around the corner and putting up cameras makes the current administration look like they are doing something. Typical election year politics most likely. Interesting that no statistics from cities that do have the cameras installed were cited.

ed dicksonAugust 6, 2007 11:23 PM

I've bought and used video cameras since the 80's. They do keep honest people honest, so to speak -- but if someone is motivated to commit a crime, or other dastardly deed -- there are two many ways to defeat them.

Some are as simple as wearing a mask, or disguising one's features.

Dom De VittoAugust 7, 2007 3:02 AM

Actually, the presence of camera OBVIOUSLY INCREASES the likelihood of terror crimes.

Terror REQUIRES publicity, which recording cameras will produce. They are much less use as "evidence", than they are as "propaganda".

I can visage a suicide bomber holding up a placard to the cameras saying "This is for Iraq" just before detonating.

Publicity is by far the most damaging weapon in the terrorist arsenal.

RodneyAugust 7, 2007 4:19 AM

He doesn't say that he doesn't think it deters crime. He said that they're not used to stop crime while it's happening. I believe they stop a lot of crime BEFORE it happens - it deters people because there's a greater risk of getting caught and convicted, so it's good for most crime. Even with crimes where the perpetrator is planning to kill himself or herself, there are usually people left behind who helped, who may be more reticent if they can be traced through association.

SomeoneAugust 7, 2007 5:25 AM

You can't have it both ways! If they're useless, they're useless - and if the terrorists don't care about being caught in the act on the things, then they'll also either not care, or more likely see right through, the security-theatre bit too, won't they?

JorgensonAugust 7, 2007 6:19 AM

...cameras are useless devices unless somebody is constantly & closely watching the pictures/video -- and can act effectively in real time.

That is the Achilles Heel of the grand surveillance concept -- it's very labor intensive (..and expensive) to be done right.

Large numbers of cameras mean huge amounts of data & noise to be sifted by humans. A camera without a live 'watcher' is merely a historical recording device, at best.

Putting a camera on every corner is far different than putting a cop on every corner... if your objective is to 'prevent' crime.

bobAugust 7, 2007 6:43 AM

No, these are great. The next of kin of terrorist victims will be able to see videos of building(s) crashing down and squishing their loved ones into subatomic particles. Possibly even undiscovered particles which can then be named for the victim(s)!

FPAugust 7, 2007 9:50 AM

Cameras invite terrorism! Which terrorist wouldn't want their martyrdom broadcast all over the television for years to come?

Let's put up cameras in all areas rich enough to afford them, pushing crime and other undesirable behavior into low-income neighborhoods. Finally, gated communities without the inconvenience (and questionable stigma) of physical gates!

derfAugust 7, 2007 11:26 AM

In spite of the many cameras in convenience stores, jewelery stores, banks, Wal-Marts, department stores, etc., in spite of the many signs advertising that the cameras are watching, in spite of security guards patrolling, crimes happen in these locations anyway.

The cameras, they do nothing to STOP crime. They do make it easier to investigate some crimes and to enforce some of the less enforcable (often stupid) laws on the books.

Stefan WagnerAugust 7, 2007 4:53 PM

The more than 1000 cameras in the Berlin metro system (stations and trains) are watched by 1 person.
Pictures made inside the train are kept for 24 h and can't be viewed live (but I didn't find seperate numbers for cameras in stations and trains).

But many passengers believe they are live observed.
I guess in the criminal scene, this information is too important not to been widely spread.

Of course only in very serious crimes a search by picture is possible.

JamesLindleyAugust 8, 2007 11:28 AM

To expand the Baltimore comment in the article:

Last month, various Baltimore television stations ran an 11pm story on an alert camera operator who noticed an individual "acting suspiciously," apparently by ducking into bushes and walking back and forth in unlit but camera-viewed areas. The operator started looking for the individual on other nearby cameras and was thus able to react promptly when the individual assaulted a passing female and dragged her into nearby bushes. Baltimore police were at the scene within 60 to 90 seconds and arrested the individual for various crimes. What the camera does best is extend the eyes of a smart human operator.

As for cameras "only" dropping crime 17% percent. Holy crap, most mayors and police chiefs would give their left arms for being able to boast that they had cut crime 17%.

Craig ChambersAugust 8, 2007 11:57 AM

Steve Swain’s comments should come as no surprise to most security directors. It is widely known that surveillance cameras, by themselves, provide little to no aid in stopping an in-progress attack, terrorist or otherwise. Those passive “eyes��? must be outfitted with the ability to recognize suspect activities, such as people where they shouldn't be, conspicuous vehicles and even unaccompanied packages. The recommendation is not that cities and municipalities simply buy a camera system, but that they take the necessary steps to make that system effective in real-time as well as after-the-fact. It is possible with the support of a host of commercially viable, field-proven technologies.

LsHAugust 9, 2007 2:31 PM

I was thinking about how the cameras can help but I found it is the opposite… they are a extra motivation for the theorists! They make the movies that goes around the world some minutes after a terrible event – so they are a very imported part in the chain of terror! That off course beside all the other secondary uses.

DeonOctober 29, 2007 8:46 AM

I find all of the above comments really amazing - most of you do not have an idea what a high crime rate area is. I live in Johannesburg South Africa and we have arguably one of the worst crime rates in the world. In 2000 the Gauteng Department of Public safety installed about 180 CCTV cameras through the City centre. Within months, crime was reduced significantly (I don't know what the exact percentage is) but suddenly it became tolerable to go into the city again. CCTV on it's own is not a golden bullet - it is part of a system just as Access Control, Burglar Alarms and pro-active policing are. You have to see the bigger picture - CCTV helps identifies criminal behaviour and, as part of a system, eventually helps identify and prevent crime trends in the future. CCTV is SA has had a major impact on vehicle hi-jackings, street robberies and other street crime. Remember that 80% of all criminals are repeat offenders and their Modus Operandi never changes - the old adage of the leopard and its spots.
As far as CCTV curbing terrorism - remember what happened in South Africa. Once peace was made between the different ideoligies we became the rainbow nation. CCTV will not stop or curb terrorism EVER, consilliation between ideoligies will. CCTV enables the law enforcement to piece together what transpired - it's called investigation. It also enables them to identify trends and behaviour.

For those of you who want to complain about invasion of privacy, violation of human rights and unnecessary expenditure by Government - come live in my world and we'll talk again

Leave a comment

Allowed HTML: <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre>

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc..