CCTV and other visual surveillance
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 CCTV and other visual surveillance

This page looks at the "privatisation" of public space through closed circuit television (CCTV) in streets and other places. It also considers questions posed by the use of webcams, phonecams and ANPR systems.

It covers -

cctv and the privatisation of public space
video surveillance legislation
webcams
phonecams
ANPR
CCTV

Use of closed circuit television cameras by government agencies (police, hospitals, schools, rail and road authorities) and private bodies (retailers, taxi operators, private security services) continues to increase.

In the UK it has been claimed that the average citizen is captured by 300 cameras each day, that there were around 1.5 million cameras in 400 communities as of 2002 (with 40,000 operated by local government, up from 100 in 1990), and that distinctions between private and public space are eroding.

In January 2004 Clive Norris suggested that the number of cameras had risen to "at least" 4,285,000, supposedly making Britain the most-watched nation in the world, with estimates that the UK accounts for one-fifth of all CCTV cameras worldwide. In 2005 the London transportation system reported that it had 6,000 cameras across its network, with 9,000 planned by 2010. Images from the cameras - few of which were digital and many apparently in poor condition - were typically kept for 14 days before being erased or taped over. As of 2005 the NSW government reported that there were 7,000 cameras in Sydney alone.

Felix Stalder, in his 2002 paper on The Voiding of Privacy (PDF), suggests that

Most contemporary conceptions of privacy are based on a notion of a separation between the individual and the environment. On the one side of this boundary lies "the private", on the other lies "the public". The boundary, or gap, between the two spheres is controlled by the individual. Invasion of privacy means the intrusion of a "public" actor into the realm of the "private" without the individual's consent. This notion is clearly visible in the approach to privacy prevalent in Europe, particularly in Germany. Here, privacy is translated into "informational self-determination", that is, the right of individuals to police the boundary, to decide themselves which information they are willing to disclose under what conditions. Such a conception of privacy, far from being universal, is in fact historically specific. Its rise (and decline) is part of a particular cultural condition connected to the dominance of print media from the 16th to the 20th century. As electronic communications rise in importance, print culture, part of which is the notion of privacy, erodes.

Others, particularly in the US, have noted traditional thinking that privacy is restricted to what goes on behind closed doors or in your head. It does not embrace activity in public space or that might be observed from public space (eg from an adjacent rooftop or via an aerial photograph).

One web cam vendor crowed that with video, there's not a whole lot of restrictions. You can do it anywhere except where someone can reasonably expect privacy ... I can basically follow you around all day, as long as I don't follow you into a public restroom or something. [Debate about photography in private and semi-private places - and pointers to judgments such as exemplary damages of US$500 million to 46 athletes filmed without their knowledge by cameras hidden in restrooms, locker rooms and showers - features in a note elsewhere on this site.]

David Banisar of EPIC responded that just because you're walking down a public street doesn't mean that the government or any other person should have the right to follow you around wherever you go and take notes of who you see and what you do.

In the US state and federal courts have generally disagreed with that comment, particularly where surveillance was conducted by the media.

Eugene Volokh thus notes the First Amendment in commenting that

the chief protection we have against intrusive news-gathering, then, is traditional real property law: we can keep people off our property but we can't keep them off the public sidewalk, even if they're gathering embarrassing information about us

The Canadian Privacy Commissioner had a different view, consistent with Canada's human rights and privacy regime, in criticising local government use of CCTV as a breach of the federal privacy legislation.

He commented (PDF) that

If we cannot walk or drive down the street without being systematically monitored by the cameras of the state, our lives and our society will be irretrievably altered. The psychological impact of having to live in a sense of constantly being observed must surely be enormous, indeed incalculable. We will have to adapt, and adapt we undoubtedly will. But something profoundly precious - our right to feel anonymous and private as we go about our day-to-day lives will have been lost forever.

David Brin's The Transparent Society (Reading: Perseus Books 1998), noted earlier in this guide, suggests that the problem with surveillance of public places is one of equity. 'They' observe us (and can integrate that observation with databases that have significant impacts on our lives). 'We' are observed but often aren't aware of being observed, have no choice in being observed and - more importantly - aren't in a position to watch the watchers or use our knowledge about their observation.

One response has been street theatre such as World Sousveillance Day (WSD) and suggestions from cyberlibertarians such as John Gilmore that the 'watched' invade the privacy of the watchers (or merely those unlucky enough to live in the vicinity).

Another has been a range of mapping exercises by community groups, including the EU Urbaneye Project ("On the Threshold to Urban Panopticon?"), the Washington DC Observing Surveillance Project and iSee in New York. The anarchists at RTMark offer a Guide to CCTV Destruction, perhaps reflecting Reg Whitaker's overheated The End of Privacy: How Total Surveillance Is Becoming A Reality (New York: New Press 1999). Arthur Cockfield's 2001 Who Watches the Watchers? (PDF) highlights some regulatory issues; others are explored in the 'CCTV Issue' (Vol 2/3) of Surveillance & Society

Brin's assessment is broadly endorsed by Joshua Meyrowitz in No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behaviour (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 1986), The Spy in the Coffee Machine: (The End of Privacy as We Know It) (Oxford: One World 2008) by Kieron O'Hara & Nigel Shadbolt and Ross Clark's The Road to Southend Pier (Petersfield: Harriman House 2007). There is a more nuanced analysis of issues and responses in The Electronic Eye: The Rise of the Surveillance Society (Minneapolis: Uni of Minnesota Press 1994), in Surveillance Society: Monitoring Everyday Life (Buckingham: Open Uni Press 2001) and in Surveillance as Social Sorting: Privacy, Risk & Digital Discrimination (London: Routledge 2002) by David Lyon.

There is a less philosophical analysis in Surveillance, Closed Circuit Television & Social Control (Aldershot: Ashgate 1998) edited by Clive Norris, Jade Moran & Gary Armstrong and in The Maximum Surveillance Society: The Rise of CCTV (Oxford: Berg 1999) by Clive Norris.

Background on the uptake of CCTV in the US is provided by the 2002 report on Public & Private Applications of Video Surveillance and Biometric Technologies (PDF) by Marcus Nieto, Kimberly Johnston-Dodds & Charlene Simmons.

For Australia a starting point is provided by the report of the Australian Institute of Criminology Comparative Study of Establishment & Operation of Public CCTV in Australia, the associated 2003 Open-street CCTV in Australia (PDF) report by Dean Wilson & Adam Sutton, their 2004 Open-Street CCTV in Australia: The Politics of Resistance and Expansion (PDF) and the 2005 note An overview of the effectiveness of closed circuit television (CCTV) surveillance by Nigel Brew of the federal Parliamentary Library.

Jeffrey Rosen in The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age (New York: Random House 2004) comments that

CCTV cameras have a mysterious knack for justifying themselves regardless of what happens to crime. When crime goes up, the cameras get credit for detecting it, and when crime goes down, they get the credit for preventing it.

There is no consensus on the effectiveness of public CCTV as a deterrent or an effective mechanism for responding to crime, although there are strong suggestions that the technological fix is overrated and oversold. Organisations responding to the "need to be doing something" are susceptible to spending money on equipment acquisition and deployment without appropriate investment in ongoing monitoring.

In practice the value of CCTV is often forensic - as a tool for identifying what happened - rather preventive, something that is unsurprising as some images are not closely monitored ("no one is actually watching what's seen by the eye in the sky"), image quality is poor or devices are not working, and help is not readily at hand if the observer does identify an incident.

Bruce Schneier commented in 2008 that

To some, it's comforting to imagine vigilant police monitoring every camera, but the truth is very different. Most CCTV footage is never looked at until well after a crime is committed. When it is examined, it's very common for the viewers not to identify suspects. Lighting is bad and images are grainy, and criminals tend not to stare helpfully at the lens. Cameras break far too often. The best camera systems can still be thwarted by sunglasses or hats. Even when they afford quick identification think of the 2005 London transport bombers and the 9/11 terrorists police are often able to identify suspects without the cameras. Cameras afford a false sense of security, encouraging laziness when we need police to be vigilant.

The solution isn't for police to watch the cameras. Unlike an officer walking the street, cameras only look in particular directions at particular locations. Criminals know this, and can easily adapt by moving their crimes to someplace not watched by a camera and there will always be such places. Additionally, while a police officer on the street can respond to a crime in progress, the same officer in front of a CCTV screen can only dispatch another officer to arrive much later. By their very nature, cameras result in underused and misallocated police resources.

Examples of the literature are the 1999 paper by Jason Ditton, Emma Short, Clive Norris et al on The effect of closed circuit television cameras on recorded crime rates and public concern about crime in Glasgow, a broader 2001 study of Sydney, the 2002 UK Home Office report (PDF) by Brandon Welsh & David Farrington on Crime Prevention Effects of Closed Circuit Television: A Systematic Review, David Flaherty's 1998 report Video surveillance by Public Bodies, papers in Surveillance of Public Space: CCTV, Street Lighting and Crime Prevention (Monsey: Criminal Justice Press 1999) edited by Kate Painter & Nick Tilley, the 2008 study CCTV Camera Evaluation: The crime reduction effects of public CCTV cameras in the City of Philadelphia, PA installed during 2006 (PDF) by Jerry Ratcliffe & Travis Taniguchi.

video surveillance legislation

Most legislation regarding video surveillance has centred on its use in the workplace and its use by government agencies or commercial operators on a covert basis within private spaces, rather than use in public spaces.

That reflects uncertainty about "reasonable expectations of privacy" and whether privacy and public space are antithetical, along with perceptions that problems can be addressed through existing privacy or other legislation.

The Australian regime (outlined here and discussed in more detail in a supplementary profile) at the federal and state levels includes the 1998 NSW Workplace Video Surveillance Act (WVSA) and a range of state/teritory listening or surveillance device enactments noted here.

The regime reflects reports such as the 1995 Invisible Eyes study by the NSW Privacy Committee and 2001 NSW Law Reform Commission Surveillance report. The Victorian Law Reform Commission is due to report in 2003 on public and workplace surveillance issues.

Overseas the UK House of Commons Culture, Media & Sport committee announced in December 2002 an investigation of privacy and media regulation, following criticism of paparazzi, calls for rights of publicity legislation and claims that there are no UK legislative restrictions on the provision to media or other users of of CCTV recordings made by government agencies or private bodies surveilling 'public' areas.

The UK currently requires registration under the 1998 Data Protection Act of those CCTV systems that "process data"; the Act and Human Rights Act 1998 articulate principles for consent (eg signs in carparks and retail premises) and data handling.

An overview of developments across the EU is provided in Urbaneye's 2002 On the Threshold to Urban Panopticon: Analysing the Employment of CCTV in European Cities and Assessing its Social & Political Impacts paper (PDF).

The Public & Private Applications report (PDF) by Nieto, Johnston-Dodds & Simmons noted above highlights US legislation.

webcams

Theorist Jim Cross argues that

a webcam in your own home is a voluntary rendering public of what would normally be private, a throwing open of your house to an indeterminately large and anonymous public. I would suggest that this needs to be seen in a communal context: this is not a case of one person throwing their world open for public inspection but, rather, joining the ranks of people who are making a relatively high profile appearance on the Web. How far this makes them a member of a Web 'community' hinges to a large extent on what is understood by that term. But I suspect the idea of 'sharing' is important in understanding what is going on here

As with blogs, a case of 'in the future everyone will be famous to 15 people, rather than for 15 seconds' and "surveillant narcissism"? What of webcams in public places (rather than dinky little cameras set up by the proud owners of coffee pots or to allow the community to share in the bedroom gymnastics)?

Opinions are divided, with most observers suggesting that the low resolution and lack of contextual information mean that images captured on many webcams in public places - such as those developed by Earthcam - don't breach the letter or spirit of privacy law. That may change, however, as more consumers go onto broadband and imaging technology improves.

One disturbing example is the 'abortioncam.com' dispute, involving several sites - of which the abortioncam.com is the most prominent - that have positioned high-quality webcams opposite womens' health centres and other medical facilities. The sites have featured images of visitors to those locations, in some instances along with identifying information such as vehicle license plate numbers and more specific data such as the name of an individual patient, her medical records, town and age of her child.

Breach of privacy under US law? No, the cameras cover public space and distribution of the images is protected as free speech, say some observers such as Eugene Volokh. Others suggest that the cams cannot legitimately claim a 'public interest' defence and that mere disclosure of recourse to medical help is likely breach protection under HIPAA of medical record data.

Another example, noted here, here and in Michael Clements' 2005 paper Virtually Free from Punishment until Proven Guilty: The Internet, Web-Cameras and the Compelling Necessity Standard (PDF) was installation of a webcam in the Maricopa (Arizona) jail jail, with visitors to the jail site initially having unrestricted views of people being booked, strip searched or visiting the bathroom.

phone and other cams

US and other law is currently grappling with voyeurcams, upskirtcams and other nasties in notes on the Adult Content industry and on Unauthorised Photography.

Uptake of digital cameras and more recently camera-equipped phones (now estimated to comprise around 25% of the 600 million or so mobile phones sold each year) has driven internet access to 'up skirt', 'down blouse' or other voyeur genres - typically surreptitious photos taken under the doors of lavatory cubicles or in a public shower or change room. The technology has allowed amateurs and professionals to take snaps of unsuspecting men, women and children, which can then be published on the net without major difficulty.

The amount of photographing and its audience is unclear. Projectvoyeur.com, claimed as a pioneering free site, supposedly attracts over 600,000 visitors a day.

Responses have varied. South Korea has moved to restrict sales of camera phones to models that beep when pictures are taken. Other jurisdictions have more effectively been banned the devices from pools, gyms, change-rooms, lavatories, schools and even beaches.

One introduction is provided in Camera Phone Obsession (Phoenix: Paraglyph Press 2004) by Peter Aitken.

ANPR

Automated number plate recognition (ANPR) systems, discussed in more detail here, collect digital images of vehicle registration numbers for real time or retrospective matching with official databases.

That collection and matching can be for traffic congestion pricing and road safety purposes (eg to detect vehicles that are breaking speed limits). It may instead be used for other law enforcement purposes, with for example real time matching against 'hotlists' of stolen vehicles and those 'of interest' regarding offences such as burglary, kidnapping, drug trafficking and terrorism.

APNR cameras are often coupled with other image capture systems, so that for example a vehicle can be tracked by video across a precinct after initial recognition or a photograph can be taken of the driver and passenger on the basis of a traveler watchlist.