UK Liberty

On Government proposals and solving problems

Posted in politicians on liberty by ukliberty on January 8, 2008

The 2005 Home Office Study “Assessing the Impact of CCTV” (772 Kb PDF) is well worth a read.

The first important thing to note about the study is that it can’t help us come to a reasonable conclusion about measuring outcome in terms of crime rates.

The second is that the forensic use of images, ie in a courtroom, was outside the scope of the study. We can say however that some police are of two minds about it – they like to have the images, but sometimes there are too many images to work through, and some aren’t clear enough to be useful.

The third is that the authors conclude CCTV was oversold by successive governments as a magic bullet (something common to a lot of failed projects, not just IT projects ):

…there was a tendency to put up cameras and expect impressive results, ignoring the challenge of making what is quite a complex measure work (replicating the findings of Ditton et al. 1999), and failing to define what exactly the CCTV system was expected to do.

In the first place, the crime problem must be defined properly, but some agencies failed to do this despite previous experience in this field. Consequently, CCTV was installed in areas and circumstances where it was unlikely to be effective. It is also a mistake to install a large number of cameras just because funding is available.

So, they not only failed to define the problem (eg “there is a high rate of vehicle crime in this car park”) but also failed to define how they wanted CCTV to ‘solve’ it (eg “we want to deter would-be criminals and photograph criminals in the act”).

They also did not have a full understanding of what CCTV could do, in part because of the difficulty in researching it, because of the aforementioned and following problems:

systems have to be monitored properly or recordings made and stored properly; but the quality of this work varied considerably from one control room to another. Hence the researchers were often not evaluating carefully designed systems which addressed clearly defined crime and disorder problems, so much as failures of implementation.

In addition, and this is important from an evaluation perspective, the objectives often did not drive the scheme. For researchers, establishing a scheme’s objectives was not straightforward. Although these had to be stated in tender documents, they did not play a significant role in deciding how the project was implemented. As the objectives were not the driving force and were rarely embedded in day-to-day practice, the failure to achieve crime prevention objectives was arguably less the failure of CCTV as a crime prevention measure than of the way it was managed.

The point being that even if we put civil liberties objections aside it really isn’t good enough to say, “I support CCTV”, “I support ID cards”, “I support bans on drugs/ fox-hunting/smoking”, “children’s databases” and so on.

If you put aside general civil liberties objections (or just don’t care about them) try using something like Schneier’s five steps to help you evaluate a proposal (he is a security expert, but I think the steps work in the more general case):

  1. What is the problem you are trying to solve?
  2. How well would it solve the problem?
  3. What new problems would it add?
  4. What are the economic and social costs?
  5. Given the above, is it worth the costs?

I urge you to dissect all Government proposals in this way – to think critically about them.

If you find it difficult to get past step one, “what problem are you trying to solve?”, it may well indicate a problem with the proposal – that there isn’t a clearly defined problem, and therefore this could well be an inappropriate proposal, or something that isn’t going to work, like CCTV in some circumstances as outlined above.

Step two is a little easier: if you think the proposal wouldn’t “solve the problem”, then there’s probably little point in pursuing it. If you think it would get it half right, then it might be worth developing.

For instance, suppose an ID card system is supposed to be able to solve ID fraud. Now suppose most ID fraud occurs when the person is not present. How would the system solve that? Probably not very well at all.

And if it is never explained exactly how the proposal will solve the problem, it’s probably worth regarding it with some suspicion.

Step three, “what new problems does it add?”, is a bit more involved and requires research and reflection. Take outlawing prostitution, for example – this could increase the victimisation of prostitutes by police and criminals, and increase the wealth of pimps, and stop some women from being able to feed themselves.

Or ID cards with a central database – clearly the database would become a target for criminals. All this needs careful thought.

Of course new problems need not be limited to deliberate wrongdoing. Suppose the database was checked when you collected benefits or accessed non-emergency health services, but the system crashed, or a mistake was made in your records. What would happen? Would you be allowed to access those services, or would you be sent home?

Now, the economic costs are probably a little easier to determine, although note that the Government usually gets these wrong (or misleads us about them) in terms of IT projects at least. The social costs need more thinking about – I think these overlap with “new problems it adds”, such as wealthier pimps. They could be more abstract, harder to quantify, such as the “chilling effect” brought about by surveillance, or couched in civil liberties terms such as the loss of a freedom to speak.

And then there is step five, “bearing all this in mind, is the proposal worth deploying?”

As I say in my About This Blog,

Do not take my word for anything. Click through the links. Make up your own mind.

And do apply the same to claims made by politicians, because in all likelihood they have the same level of understanding as you about these things and certainly different motivations.

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  1. […] my faultDear GordonID cards and foreign nationalsCompulsory or not compulsory, that is the questionOn Government proposals and solving problemsA judge on summary justiceeVotingProject StorkGordon Brown on 42 day detention without […]

  2. […] In Glasgow, however, it seems like CCTV didn’t make much difference at all. And in many areas the benefits of CCTV have been difficult to establish. It seems a bit dishonest of Hari to use that one example, who seems to want a […]


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