Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Two Faces of CCTV

CCTV is coming under fire in Polegate and Marlow, seemingly because while "disturbances" continued in high streets, the cameras themselves were either broken ("There was a problem with the actual camera itself") or just pointed in the wrong place (so presumably unmonitored - "[Youths] were not doing anything in particular, just standing on the steps. But the CCTV cameras were pointing at the railway signal box.").

This highlights one of the shortfalls of town surveillance cameras - their use is actually twofold, and when one purpose fails to achieve what it was supposed to, people can at least turn to the other. But when both fail, suddenly people wake up to the world they actually live in.

The first purpose is, as given in the two articles above, to catch video evidence of people committing crime (or anti-social behaviour, or whatever your gripe is this week), so the perps can be caught to be re-educated locked up for good.

The second purpose (as used to be pointed out all the time, I'm sure) is as a preventative measure - the theory being that if you think you're being watched, you're less likely to go ahead with the crime you're thinking of.*

Alas, in reality it turns out that people don't really care if they're being watched. Or if they do, then they're smart enough to at least keep half an eye on which direction the visible cameras are pointing in - no big deal. Hey - maybe there was something to the suggestion that CCTV merely displaces crime after all? "Time-shifting" might also be applicable here too...

The big assumption in our application of surveillance systems is that, somehow, by letting people know we're watching them, people will "improve". All this talk of ID, more cameras, more policemen, etc all assumes that the places in which we live can be improved by this monitoring - and by extension, we recapture the idea of a "civil society" that we like to romanticise about.

What a sham. If we're really honest with ourselves, all monitoring does is lock down the public face of our nation, allowing us in our public capacity to simply sweep aside all the factors that lead to the crime and attitude we're experiencing every day. By forcing the streets to behave and look nice for visitors (including ourselves), we can comfortably ignore the deep social distress being hidden by private walls and fences.

The second article above mentions that "a high visibility operation ..., in response to these concerns, had been a success." More officers works in the short term for the simple reason that they can react instantly. They are both the piercing eye of the CCTV camera and the radio link from surveillance central to the police station. But they do nothing to actually show us how we should behave, or what we can achieve if we're allowed to.

* On a side note, this thinking has now been extended on buses where I live. A monitor downstairs, in full public view, reflects the views from a dozen cameras around the bus. This is clearly not for the driver's attention as he/she can't see it. The obvious intention is that instant social embarassment is more of a deterrent that just having a camera watch you. I await the scheme's failure.


Charlie Williams said...

What you're describing is the Panopticon, a type of prison designed by Jeremy Bentham.

The idea was that the prisoners knew that they were could be observed without them knowing it, thus enforcing good behaivour at all times because they didn't know whether they were being watched or not.

The inventor went on to state that eventually there would be no need for any prison warders at all, because the idea of being watched was so insidious.

The philosopher Michel Foucalt wrote about it at length, in particular the idea that it was a demonstration of perfect power: that is power that is no longer required to be executed, and is independent of the person doing the observing.

On the other hand - the point about the location and view of the cameras - these cameras are installed by companies and councils who are, on the whole, not particularly interested in filming groups of youths hanging around doing nothing. They are, by comparison, chiefly concerned with damage to their property which is why the cameras point at important things like Railway Signal Boxes not empty street corners.

The confusion arises because large portions of the general public still believe CCTV cameras to be for their benefit, not the benefit of those who install them.

Organisations tend not to be intimidated by youths in hoodies - people are.


Scribe said...

The Panopticon is a great symbol for the modern day approach to each other, but also fails to go far enough, IMHO. For two reasons:

Firstly, because it was a design for a jail, the ability to punish is intrinsically tied in with the ability to monitor. i.e. if you're caught doing something wrong, then you will be punished - physical detention is already dealt with. This is obviously not true in the case of public streets, where actually catching someone after they've been observed is a whole level of difficulty harder.

Secondly, we continue to develop technology that removes the uncertainty aspect. Whereas, in a panopticon, you don't know if you're *actually* being watched, if our government and its police force can automate the link between observation and punishment, they will. Take, for instance, the advances seen in traffic cameras, optical recognition technology, and central databases tying together a car with a person. The same thing is true of ID cards, along with other technology to recognise people by their walk, for instance.

In other words, the warders will have been replaced by very small shell scripts.

A good point about the issue of private vs public cameras too.

By the way, I'm working through Foucault's "Discipline and Punish", and can certainly recommend it for people that want an overview of where we've come from and where we're going.

Richard Veryard said...

It is interesting to apply Stafford Beer's principle of POSIWID - the purpose of a system is what it does.

In order to look at the effects of the panopticon, we need to consider the effects on the prison officers as well as on the prisoners. The prison officer is vulnerable to three fallacies:

* that everything visible is undistorted truth
* that everything visible is important
* that everything important is visible