Thursday, April 05, 2007

Security and surveillance

The following is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin:

Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety
Most British citizens seem to disagree. Middlesborough in the north of England is being touted as a model for the rest of the UK to follow, with its blanket CCTV coverage and talking cameras, controlled from a central command post. While many feel this is Orwellian, others feel protected.
Jack Bonnar, the centre's security manager, points out that the longest they are allowed to watch someone for is five seconds unless there is something about their behaviour which demands further attention.

Among the successes of the talking cameras has been preventing criminal damage by three youths who climbed on the top of a Pizza Hut restaurant.

They were spoken to as they dismantled a neon sign, stopped immediately and then put it back the way they found it. No further action was taken.
Britain has something like 20% of all the CCTV cameras in the world; we are the most heavily spied on civilian population in history, though had the technology been available to, say, Stalin he would no doubt have made use of it.

For many people, this is acceptable. The trade off is couched as a loss of privacy in return for a gain in security from crime. Unfortunately, this gain has not materialised. We have lost liberty, but have not gained even temporary safety.

Police procedures have changed radically in the past twenty years. The first types of evidence turned to today - CCTV, DNA and mobile telephone - barely existed in 1980. It would be reasonable to expect, with these new and powerful sources of evidence and detection, that crime clear up rates would have been rising. But they haven't. A report prepared by Julian V. Roberts, Centre for Criminology, Faculty of Law, University of Oxford, for the Prime Minister's office, and available on the website, states:
The detection or clear up rate has fluctuated somewhat over the years, but the general trend since 1988 is downwards.
Nor has the existence of these technologies brought down crime levels. From the same report:
Adopting a longer term perspective - say 30 to 40 years - compels the conclusion that criminal victimization rates are higher today than 20 or 30 years ago. During the latter decades of the 20th century crime rates escalated dramatically, particularly during the period 1975-1992.[v] The recent (and relatively modest) decline in the volume of crime must therefore be considered in the context of the longer term increases.
It's worth remembering that the period 1975 to 1992 is roughly the period that saw the greatest police reforms in twentieth century history, starting with Operation Countryman in the early 1970s and moving through PACE in 1984 to the McPherson report of 1993.

Looking specifically at the effects of CCTV cameras in Glasgow, a Scottish Office study concluded:
* In the 12 months after installation of the cameras there were 3,156 fewer crimes and offences than the average for the 24 months preceding installation.
* Once the crime and offence figures were adjusted to take account of the general downward trend in crimes and offences, reductions were noted in certain categories but there was no evidence to suggest that the cameras had reduced crime overall in the city centre.
* The cameras appeared to have little effect on clear up rates for crimes and offences.
* 33% of people questioned in the city centre were aware of the cameras 3 months after installation and 41% 15 months after installation.
* Installation of the CCTV cameras did not reduce the proportion of those who said they would sometimes avoid a certain part of the city but there was a slight reduction in those who said they were anxious about becoming a victim of crime in the city centre.
* 72% of all those interviewed believed CCTV cameras would prevent crime and disorder; 81% thought they would be effective in catching perpetrators; and 79% thought they would make people feel less likely that they would become victims of crime.
* 67% of those interviewed 'did not mind' being observed by street cameras.
So although CCTV cameras don't help, people think they do, feel safer and don't mind losing their privacy.

When a petty act of vandalism was carried out near my home recently, I telephoned the police and they asked whether cameras overlooked the area. They do not, so the police declined to investigate, merely giving out a crime reference for insurance purposes. If there had been cameras, the investigation would probably have got nowhere; it's a stupid vandal today who forgets his hoodie. In the absence of CCTV or witnesses, the police won't even investigate minor crime.

Thirty years ago, in a small town like this, they would have known who did it - or found out from informants - and given him a hiding or, even worse, told his Dad.

But they can't do any of those things any more - not since the quarter century of reforms that closed the twentieth century - and today the vandal's Dad would be more likely to side with his son than to unstrap his belt.

Yet CCTV is a powerful tool for investigation; DNA evidence has been revolutionary; almost no major prosecution is brought without mobile phone evidence. These techniques have almost, but not quite, managed to compensate for what has been a long term, institutionalised failure of government and of policing. Because while almost eliminating corruption and racism from the police, the reforms of 1970 to 1995 almost eliminated policing. The first part of that equation was good, the second half was bad.

But no institutional failure - especially not one on this scale, one that has extended through periods of both Labour and Conservative government - can be admitted. At best, it can be compensated for, in this case by the systematic elimination of privacy.

And that's actually the trade off: your privacy is being sacrificed to compensate for institutional failure.

UPDATE: John Redwood gets it.

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