Under Unblinking Eyes

Despite public faith in expanding camera surveillance, there is no clear evidence it makes us safer

In my mail on a day in May 2011 was a single-page flyer from the West Midlands Police, the city force of the United Kingdom’s second largest city, Birmingham. It announced that “overt” cameras on my street were going to be removed in the coming weeks. “Covert” cameras, reassured the flyer, had already been taken down. Both sets of cameras had gone up initially as part of a counter-terrorism operation code-named “Project Champion.” The effort, carried out under the rubric of crime reduction, was in fact paid for out of counter-terrorism funds and was designed to target specific Muslim communities, including suspects within these communities, through the cameras and automatic number plate recognition software. (The latter is capable of reading licence plates on vehicles and feeding this information into a database to track their movements, and was originally used in the UK against members of the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland.) The intention was to blanket these communities with surveillance in order to continually follow the movements of certain individuals within them. In the case of my street, this may have involved keeping watch on a mosque. Not one of the cameras was ever switched on. The whole effort ran aground when a local civil liberties activist started asking questions about why new cameras had begun to appear in his area of the city. An investigation ensued, followed by an official apology from the police, anger from the communities under surveillance and an abandonment of the system.

Outside of Birmingham, this horrendous case received little attention in the UK. This was because the targets involved marginalized and discriminated-against communities and because, as Eyes Everywhere: The Global Growth of Camera Surveillance illuminates, the UK is already home to—at a low estimate—1.85 million surveillance cameras. In that respect, this study is timely and relevant through its exploration of the routinization of surveillance in the daily lives of millions of people around the world. Although global in scope, the collection of articles by leading surveillance scholars is edited by three academics based in Canada: Aaron Doyle, Randy Lippert and David Lyon. In particular, Lyon is well known for his extensive and excellent scholarship on the issue of surveillance and technology for more than two decades and is currently director of the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University and a professor of sociology at the same university.

What the editors have assembled is an ambitious transnational compilation. It covers many aspects of what many simply refer to as CCTV, or closed–circuit television, which made its original appearance in 1942 so that Nazi scientists could monitor test rocket launches. As several of the contributors note, the term CCTV—with the requirement of a physical connection through a cable—does not reflect technological trends, particularly over the last 15 years, toward digital and wireless equipment. Camera surveillance, regardless of what it is called, tends to keep spreading in an expansive fashion. Country after country is adding, through state bodies and private interests, networks of cameras, suggesting an inexorable rise in all-seeing surveillance and a concomitant decline in privacy. (However, in fairness, a piece by Gavin Smith points out that limitless expansion is not, in fact, without its limits, at least in relation to the UK in the midst of budgetary austerity measures—a potential positive contribution of the financial crisis.)

The collection of 22 academic essays tackles this general engorgement of camera surveillance and the issues relating to it from several useful angles. There are two sections that attempt to position camera expansion and its nature within an international context, specifically in Japan, Brazil, South Africa and Canada. Another section offers particular case studies of camera surveillance use that include the police in Istanbul, the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, taxis in Ottawa and the Crime Stoppers program. The final two sections deal with wider public issues. The first contains scholarship that examines resistance to cameras and shows how surveillance is perceived in different settings by different audiences, including within international public opinion as provided through polling. The final section looks at regulation. What rules are already in place in the UK and Canada and how closely are they being followed? In an ideal world, how should the public be informed (not that they can do much to avoid wide swaths of urban settings where cameras serve as unblinking eyes) about not just the presence of cameras but who put them there and why, and what will be done with the images that they are capturing? That piece, by Mark Lizar and Gary Potter, even helpfully provides suggested signage that could be used. What is the legal context in Canada for camera surveillance? Does it constitute a type of search? And what about the idea and legality of privacy in an international setting with rapidly advancing technology?

There is a common theme across the essays in Eyes Everywhere. Actually, more accurately this could be described as a common frustration, starting with the book’s introduction and the opening essay by British academic Clive Norris: frustration over the apparent shared belief among the public, politicians and the police that CCTV clearly works as either a deterrent against crime or as a way to speed the successful capture and conviction of the perpetrators in the aftermath of violence or larceny. In a useful contribution by surveillance specialist Danielle Dawson, a majority of those polled in nine countries, including Canada, expressed the view that camera surveillance reduces crime. There is a clear disconnect between this faith in the “panopticon effect” of camera surveillance (the concept was originally developed by 19th-century social reformer Jeremy Bentham in his design of the perfect prison in which the many would be watched by the few, and then it was expanded upon by French theorist Michel Foucault, who emphasized the regulating nature of such surveillance systems over human behaviour) and the incontrovertible evidence that it clearly works either as a deterrence or as a catcher of criminals. Norris points to evidence from the United Kingdom, United States, Australia and Canada that is at best contradictory or simply not provable in terms of cause and effect. For instance, a 2006 Australian study of a system in place in two suburbs and a tram system found that “CCTV as a crime prevention measure is questionable.” In the UK a government-funded study of 14 CCTV systems concluded that they “had little overall effect on crime levels.” In the U.S., a Department of Justice–sponsored review of 21 other studies noted that CCTV was “more effective at combating property offences than violent crimes … [and] achieving statistically significant reductions in crime can be difficult.” Finally, in Canada, a 2003 examination on behalf of the RCMP stated that “the effects of CCTV on crime are both quite variable and fairly unpredictable. Deterrence effects of CCTV are not constant over time and they can vary over crime categories.”

So why do clear conclusions linger in the face of unclear evidence? Some of the cheerleaders are motivated by old-fashioned self-interest. The police are only too pleased to have additional surveillance tools at their disposal, and those selling the technology in an industry where the market in China alone is worth several billion dollars equally have a stake in emphasizing/exaggerating/stressing its effectiveness. Various contributors in the collection point to the media that emphasize “successes” involving cameras, the most famous example being the infamous murder of a two-year-old British boy in which images of the perpetrators, also children, were captured by a shopping mall security camera. The publicity surrounding this case helped generate camera expansion in the UK. In turn, the UK experience has influenced the evolution in other locales such as Canada. More recently, the media has repeatedly circulated camera images of the September 11 and the UK’s July 7 terrorists on their way through airport security or train stations on their dates with death, even though in these cases the cameras neither served as deterrents nor led to convictions after the fact. Politicians, of course, are happy to capitalize on a desire for security, particularly in the neo-liberal world of the present; witness the Harper government’s “get tough on crime” approach in the face of considerable empirical evidence that the level of crime is not getting worse. The latter example points to the problem of ideologically motivated governments with their unalterable idées fixes pushing ineffective or counter-productive courses of action.

But support for cameras is also about tapping into real societal concerns about crime and, according to public opinion evidence, cameras make people feel safer regardless of whether in reality they do increase safety or not. As Norris rightly observes in his essay—and parallels exist in other areas such as government responses to terrorism—such measures are “best seen as a populist measure designed to send a message to the public that a government is doing something about the crime problem.” Or as Christopher Burt puts it, “camera surveillance technologies offer policy-makers a seductive medium.” However, there is also a case to be made that some academics bear a measure of responsibility because they too infrequently reach out beyond small audiences of other academics in which specialized language dominates and often obscures the broader and important points being made about the actual efficacy and real impact of the technologies under scrutiny. Indeed, some of that criticism applies to this collection. Perhaps it is unavoidable, but just as there is a loss of humanity in the use of technology for surveillance there is also an absence of the human factor in some of the scholarship about the impact of such technological surveillance.

In fairness to the authors, demonstrating the meaningful impact of technology on human lives is no easy task as even some of them admit. Ironically, this means in a book about surveillance, there is frequently silence on the subject of those who are being captured digitally, particularly in how the “product” of surveillance is used. This absence of clear recognition of effect causes some of the contributors, including the editors in the book’s introduction, to downplay the influence of camera surveillance. Jonathan Finn, in his chapter, goes so far as to claim that while “surveillance traditionally calls to mind police and state monitoring of individuals and groups, surveillance in the contemporary context exists more as a constitutive element of social life” and that “surveillance is increasingly a social practice.” This attitude of sweepingly denying the significance of surveillance is, frankly, dangerous, for it fundamentally misses the reality that not all targets of camera surveillance are equal. As both Laura Huey and Nelson Botello recognize in their essays, camera surveillance is not neutral or impartial. There is a measurable difference between indirect surveillance of cameras placed in a city centre and camera surveillance directed at specific targets, as in my opening example of Muslim communities in Birmingham. The dominance of sociologists in this collection may obscure a valuable historical lesson that has relevance in the 21st-century war on terror: when it comes to targeted groups or, in the concept of another sociologist Paddy Hillyard, suspect communities, little except the technology has changed from historic cases in which marginalized groups, such as far-left political parties during the Cold War, were targeted through various methods of highly intrusive surveillance, including photography. For many of those catalogued through surveillance by the liberal–democratic state as subversives or political deviants, the consequences included infringements on free speech, social exclusion, loss of employment or even imprisonment. In a wide macro sense, generalized camera surveillance may not make sense or be effective, thus neutralizing its ability to do harm to the population as a whole. However, the micro applications of invasive technology by states and private interests, now and in the future, is where the blood is being and will be drawn.