Is Canada becoming England’s mini-me? A colleague in the surveillance studies community published a paper a few years ago speculating on whether Canada was sliding towards a Big Brother surveillance society in the guise of its colonial Motherland. Of course, the hundreds of thousands of cameras that dot Britain’s urban landscapes far surpass anything on this side of the pond. Yet, news from Hamilton that that Steeltown has just expanded its public area surveillance network to include 10-12 cameras in four more areas in the downtown core.
According to Deputy Chief of Police Ken Leendertse, the cameras have been installed first and foremost as a crime “deterrence” measure. Dean Collett, a local businessman and the only other source used in the story, states he’s all for upping virtual police presence in the form of more cameras, provided that they are “used to curb major crime and as an investigators’ tool.”
It’s questionable whether the presence of cameras prevents major crime, although as a tool for detection the results are more convincing. Surveillance cameras did not prevent the abduction and violent death of British toddler James Bulger nor the bombings in London’s Underground in 2005 – they did produce compelling imagery and facilitated in the identification of the perpetrators. But detection and deterrence are very different animals.
Particularly important to consider are findings from the most comprehensive analysis of CCTV effectiveness, commissioned by the Home Office in the UK. Among the many highlights: “CCTV is an ineffective tool if the aim is to reduce overall crime rates and make people feel safer. The CCTV systems installed in 14 areas mostly failed to reduce crime (with a single exception), mostly failed to allay public fear of crime (with three exceptions) and the vast majority of specific aims set for the various CCTV schemes were not achieve.”
The omission of research evidence about efficacy and deterrence in a public policy story about surveillance suggests any number of the following: lazy journalism, the effects of editorial control, effective PR on the part of the police and business community, ineffective PR on the part of privacy advocates and others concerned about spending money on technology to solve social problems, or a combination of the above.
1) Things could be much worse for critics of increased public area surveillance in Canada. Hamilton, Ontario could be Columbia, South Carolina – in that corner of the world, there is a proposal before the local sheriff’s office to expand its existing 4 camera program to 400 new cameras. According to a report by the local broadcaster WIS 10 News, the biggest obstacle is money.
2) The debate about surveillance in Sweden, as outlined in this news announcement, from the Nordic Council of Ministers’ website, illustrates differences in the kinds of questions decision-makers are entertaining, and how journalists might actually serve the public interest in helping to create an arena for competing ideas to circulate rather than offering space for the ideas of elites to dominate.