Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Spy Cameras Won't Make Us Safer

From CNN's Bruce Schneier:

"Pervasive security cameras don't substantially reduce crime. This fact has been demonstrated repeatedly: in San Francisco public housing, in a New York apartment complex, in Philadelphia, in Washington, DC, in study after study in both the U.S. and the U.K. Nor are they instrumental in solving many crimes after the fact.

There are exceptions, of course, and proponents of cameras can always cherry-pick examples to bolster their argument. These success stories are what convince us; our brains are wired to respond more strongly to anecdotes than to data. But the data is clear: CCTV cameras have minimal value in the fight against crime.

While it's comforting to imagine vigilant police monitoring every camera, the truth is very different, for a variety of reasons: technological limitations of cameras, organizational limitations of police, and the adaptive abilities of criminals. No one looks at most CCTV footage until well after a crime is committed. And when the police do look at the recordings, it's very common for them to be unable to identify suspects. Criminals don't often stare helpfully at the lens, and -- unlike the Dubai assassins -- tend to wear sunglasses and hats. Cameras break far too often. Even when they afford quick identification -- think of the footage of the 9/11 terrorists going through airport security, or the 7/7 London transport bombers just before the bombs exploded -- police are often able to identify those suspects even without the cameras. Cameras afford a false sense of security, encouraging laziness when we need police to be vigilant.

The solution isn't for police to watch the cameras more diligently. Unlike an officer walking the street, cameras only look in particular directions at particular locations. Criminals know this, and can easily adapt by moving their crimes to places not watched by a camera -- and there will always be such places. And while a police officer on the street can respond to a crime in progress, someone watching a CCTV screen can only dispatch an officer to arrive much later. By their very nature, cameras result in underused and misallocated police resources."

Click here to read the rest of the story.


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