Tag Archives: CCTV

The media conversation about surveillance: the slowly shifting sands of time

In a recent study, a colleague and I examined the media conversation around public area video surveillance in Canada, analyzing more than 500 articles from 10 Canadian cities, spanning a period of 6 years (1999-2005). We were concerned to know how video surveillance is framed (i.e. what is discussed, what is ignored) and what the coverage might mean for how citizens understand the increasing presence of surveillance technologies and practices in their lives. 

The study will be published later this year or in 2010, but here is a summary of the key findings:

1. The coverage focuses almost exclusively on situational events, failing to engage wider contextual issues relating to the pervasiveness of surveillance. 

2. The media agenda is driven largely by the claims of police and government sources — academics, privacy advocates and community groups (on all sides of the debate), in comparison, exercise very little influence over the definitional parameters of the coverage. 

3. Coverage conflates the monitoring of open, public spaces like city streets with more bounded spaces like shopping malls and banks. This raises important theoretical and political questions about how we understand and use “public” and “private” space.  

4. Despite extensive research which questions the ability of video surveillance cameras to prevent crime, the dominant theme in CCTV news stories is the “deterrence capacity” of surveillance systems. 

5. In the very limited extent to which the problems associated with surveillance are discussed, issues of personal privacy are by far the dominant concern — questions of ethics and efficacy, not to mention costs/benefits, are virtually absent. 

 

 

Like policy making and public opinion, news reporting of social issues like surveillance can fluctuate over time, subject to changes in knowledge and in the communication activities of institutional sources. This became apparent in relation to the issue of surveillance recently when the Ottawa Citizen published Our Surveillance Society, a five-part investigation of the expansion of CCTV surveillance systems across Canada; the growing problem of identity theft; the surveillant properties of social networking sites like Facebook; the use of RFID (radio frequency identification devices) by retailers and the implications for personal privacy; and the rise of sousveillance (the inverse of surveillance in which those who are typically the subjects of monitoring initiatives turn the gaze back onto those in control with the use of visualizing technologies (think activist recordings of police brutality at demonstrations, later broadcast online or via news networks)).

Although the series contains some minor factual inaccuracies and (in the case of CCTV surveillance) a rather thin discussion about what is actually happening in Canada, it offers a very important contribution to the media and public conversations about surveillance.  The series explores many of the problematic issues relating to increased surveillance in daily life, from what it signifies about the changing nature of trust, to the regulatory and legislative challenges associated with balancing individual liberties and collective security, to the dialectic between care and control that is inherent in modern surveillance systems. As our research demonstrated, these issues are rarely raised, let alone explored in detail.

An open and honest discussion about CCTV and other forms of surveillance in Canada is long overdue. The optimist in me is hopeful that the Citizen’s series will spark the kind of interest and energy that are required to mobilize stakeholders into beginning such a conversation. The realist recognizes that the barn doors have been wide open for a very long time…

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Surveillance News – Hamilton Gets More Eyes in the Sky

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.

Final thoughts:

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.

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