Sunday, May 28, 2006

Public-directed CCTV: Spot the Obvious

People in Cambridge can now alert the CCTV centre via SMS. As the article notes, "there are something in the region of 170,000 pairs of eyes living, working and playing in these areas - who can see a lot more than the police or CCTV cameras ever can." More details are at the Cambridge site.

The "bigger" issue of why those 170,000 people should just hand over all responsibility for their town to the Police aside, there's one really obvious flaw in this idea.

How do you know that the person sending the text is telling the truth?

CCTV is not all-seeing. Cameras must either rotate, or you must have a number of them in one area (or, indeed, in all areas) to cover a wide space. Assuming the camera isn't hidden, one can be pretty aware whether or not they're being watched by simply looking at the camera.

So publically-directed CCTV means that the public (who are also suspects/criminals, remember) can quite easily influence the direction a particular CCTV camera is pointing in by sending a text. The chances of this working are, according to the site, directly proportional to the seriousness of the offence being reported:

"Please note that an incident involving for example an assault will take a higher priority than a shoplifter."

Thus, in an area covered by only 1 camera, misdirect the camera elsewhere while you carry out whatever crime you want. The level-of-seriousness approach dictates that even if someone does see you and alerts the CCTV room, there's a good chance your faked "incident" will take higher priority over the crime that you're committing.

Does no-one think these things through?


Richard Veryard said...

Is this any different from making hoax phone calls to send the police on a wild goose chase to the wrong end of town?

Lucyp said...

Where i live (not saying because i don't want to get bashed over the head by a mugger thank you) there are dummy cameras which might act as a detterant but are as much use as Prince Edward if someone nicks your car.

Scribe said...

lucyp: judging by the stories coming in via google news alerts, this is a "problem" in many places. Obviously it's less of a "problem" than a camera that's supposed to be working not working, but only due to what was intended in the first place.

Dummy cameras fulfil half the "potential" of CCTV - namely to act as a deterrent, not as evidence. The upside is that they're cheap to buy and maintain (although "operative" cameras often fall into a state of poor maintenance just because they fill the deterrent part too..).

But yes, as you point out, they're useless if people really don't care about cameras. I imagine that's partially why we're seeing a slide into more "community CCTV" schemes - by broadcasting the signal out, you can avoid the costs of having more people to continually watch over them, while people in front of the cameras can never be sure if someone's watching or not.

In a way, then, community CCTV is just an extension of the dummy camera, rather than of "real" (evidence-gathering) CCTV.

richard: This is true too, but the psychological opportunities afforded by texts instead of making a phone call shouldn't be overlooked either - the same reason why many people prefer to dump their partner via text rather than in voice/face-to-face: less contact, less guilt.

I've got a reply from the contact guy at Cambridge, but haven't had a chance to o anything with it yet. Hopefully soon.