UK Liberty

Why do people complain about CCTV?

Posted in DNA database, surveillance society by ukliberty on March 17, 2008

Johann Hari in the Independent:

[anecdote redacted]

This is a story that plays out, with mild variants, every day somewhere in Britain. Just to stick to the biggest headlines: the Ipswich Ripper was caught before he could murder even more young women because he was picked up on CCTV;

Well, the police trawled through some 10,000 hours of CCTV footage and linked the murderer to DNA and fibre evidence found on three of the victims, so no it wasn’t just that “he was picked up on CCTV”.

the Soho nail-bomber [David Copeland] was caught before he could blow up more black and gay people because he was captured on CCTV;

Apparently true.

and a few days ago at the Old Bailey, a man who shot a pregnant 22-year-old woman was banged up after being caught on camera.

I don’t know of that case.

In such cases, human liberty is enhanced by CCTV. There are women walking the streets of Ipswich and gay people walking down Old Compton Street today because CCTV caught somebody determined to kill them. When CCTV was introduced in a pilot scheme in Airdrie town centre in Scotland, over the following two years crime fell by 21 per cent.

Yes, indeed it did. 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 not mention there are studies that have found little to no benefit, or indeed those that have found adverse consequences.

There might be other things we could have spent the same amount of money on that would have had more of a benefit. Or the CCTV deployments themselves could, according to Home Office research, have been better designed and maintained.

In other words, it isn’t perfect, so let’s not pretend it is.

Yet there has been a strange, inchoate backlash against CCTV over the past few years. When listing the real

As opposed to what Hari thinks are imaginary?

erosions of human rights carried out by the current government – the complicity with US torture flights, the restrictions on free speech to appease religious fanaticism, or the shipping-back of refugees to their deaths – CCTV often gets lumped onto the end of the list. Every act by a democratic state now seems to get reflexively opposed. There is a danger that the debate about civil liberties is being driven into a right-wing ditch where liberty will actually be undermined further.

Increasingly, the mood among the intelligentsia is that the only threat to liberty comes from the state – and the only way to advance liberty is to immobilise the state.

I hope Hari can substantiate these assertions.

But in reality there are two sources of threats to your liberty. One is indeed a government that could try to control and repress you. But the other threat – just as real – is from other people. The women of Ipswich were not being attacked by the state and its tentacles; they were saved by it from being killed in even greater numbers.

The Government is obliged to prevent such crimes, and of course it wants to maintain electoral support, so of course it will propose measures that it claims will prevent crime. But I believe the Government must also make it clear that we must think very carefully about such proposals – what the trade-offs are. It does not do that, nor do people (such as Hari) who don’t know enough to start asking those questions.

This isn’t about “balancing” freedom against something else. It’s about figuring out which mixture of state action and hands-off inaction will produce the greatest freedom in the real world.

Well, that’s what “balancing freedom against something else” means – it’s about trade-offs, what the consequences are (good and bad) of implementing a proposal.

This doesn’t lend itself to grand, bombastic polemics warning that we have morphed into 1984. Instead, it requires a cool case-by-case conversation. But the critics of CCTV offer surprisingly few rational arguments to converse with.

Nice generalisations here.

They warn gravely that if you walk through Central London you are picked up by nearly one thousand cameras. But you will only ever be picked up by a CCTV camera in a place where you could be seen by a random stranger. Walking through Central London, anyone can see you – and tens of thousands do.

But you can see them, too. On the other hand, we can’t see CCTV operators. This ‘disequiveillance’ is important – the ‘chilling effect’ of being under surveillance is a part of it.

This isn’t an intrusion into your privacy, because you aren’t in private.

Except when they peek into your homes of course.

I am absolutely not saying that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. I am saying that these cameras are not in places where you hide: the are in public, where you are being seen by any number of people you will never know.

The critics are left to conjure the prospect of a future totalitarian government that could abuse the camera systems. But if we had a totalitarian government, all sorts of things we need now would be menacing – not least the police and the Army. This is an argument against totalitarianism, not in favour of abolishing the police and army and CCTV just in case.

Well, CCTV, and other measures such as Identity Cards and the National Identity Register, would make it easier for a totalitarian government to oppress us. But fair enough – I have never been wholly convinced by that sort of argument. I like liberty for it’s own sake, and I don’t want to give any of it up without a good reason.

And you know, it isn’t just the ‘intelligentsia’ who are concerned, it’s thoughtful police officers – yes, police officers – such as Deputy Chief Constable Ian Redhead, who doesn’t think a country with a camera on every street corner is a country that he’d like to live in.

Of course beyond CCTV there are genuinely knotty debates, where the path to the greatest liberty isn’t instantly clear. One has bubbled up again this weekend. The biggest abuse of civil liberties in Britain by far is the epidemic of unpunished rape, with 47,000 women being subjected every year.

I don’t know where he got that figure from. The figure I have for England and Wales is 13,331 recorded offences in 2005/06.

The setting up of a police DNA database in 2000

– that, by the way, has no statutory basis –

has helped to catch men who had raped thousands of women, and would have gone on to rape thousands more. So far, so good.

So long as you disregard the issue of false matches, or indeed error rates in general.

Then on Saturday, several senior police officers suggested that school-children who show the indicators of potential future criminality should be entered into the DNA database. Here, we become instinctively uncomfortable. Already, young black men are wildly disproportionately represented in the database because they are arrested so much more; singling out “problem” kids feels just as prejudicial.

I believe the solution that would most enhance liberty is to enter all newborn babies onto the database. That way, nobody is singled out unfairly, and random-rapists will be much more swiftly caught – and therefore will be able to rape fewer women.

Assuming it worked.

A tiny infringement of liberty has to be weighed against a very large one: a swab for all, versus a rape for many. I admit this DNA dilemma forces a real debate, and there are reams of reasonable people on the other side. But you cannot simply dismiss this tough choice, screaming “Totalitarianism!”.

Nor can you simply dismiss concerns by saying it will solve all rapes.

Of course we must always be vigilant about state power going too far; I oppose the actions of the state for great slabs of the time. But there is one thing that immediately kills any attempt to find the best road to real liberty: the closed-circuit paranoia that assumes any extension of state power is a sign of incipient fascism. It’s time to stop shrieking about a police state at every turn, and start looking calmly and questioningly into the camera lens.

Waffle.

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One Response

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  1. Nigel said, on March 26, 2009 at 8:09 pm

    Good post. I like the way you ref back to the sources. Very useful. Thanks.


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