Friday, 18 December 2009

Big Brother Watch is watching you

It never fails - you get up in the morning, determined to do some real work, only to find that someone has dropped a spanner in the works.

The spanner in this instance is a “study” by an organisation called Big Brother Watch into the “explosion” in CCTV cameras in this country. It used Freedom of Information Act requests to ask, how many CCTV cameras are controlled by local authorities.

The conclusion? There are “at least 59,753 CCTV cameras controlled by 418 local authorities in Britain, up from 21,000 in 1999”.

The figure is questionable as the CCTV User Group’s own estimates for public space CCTV cameras in the UK is closer to 35,000. And BBW includes 3,376 cameras which are classified as “internal” as opposed to public facing CCTV cameras.

It’s also not known how many of the cameras that councils reported are ones they monitor on a third-party contract basis – ie, the council monitors them but doesn’t own them. Also, not all cameras are used for crime prevention purposes, so some councils may include those cameras in their reported numbers and others may not. Did all councils use the same definitions in reporting their numbers?

The figures for individual councils are interesting and potentially useful but they have to be checked against the CCTV User Group’s own figures before we can attest to their veracity.

The overall figure is one that is certain to be used again and again by the mainstream media and foes of CCTV, but would probably be best filed under the headings of “anecdotal” and “apocryphal” estimates.

In defence

What can we say in defence of CCTV, if in fact these numbers are accurate? I suppose you’d have to say, guilty as charged.

Local authorities have continued to put up CCTV in response to the demands of the electorate. What’s remarkable is that local authorities have found the money to finance more than 40,000 CCTV cameras. If you take an average figure of, say, £15,000 for the installation of a camera (which in some parts of the country would be a modest figure), that means that councils found from various sources something like £600 million to install CCTV over the past decade, or about £60 million a year.

That doesn’t take into account annual operating expenses to keep the control rooms running which can vary, depending on the council, from £250,000 to £2 million a year for the very largest control rooms. If we take an average of £500,000, we get approximately £210 million operating costs (HEALTH WARNING: this is a very rough estimate – clearly, I need to put in my own FOI request!).

Compare that to the annual policing budget in England and Wales of £10 billion, and the investment in CCTV looks quite modest.

Nonetheless, councils are spending money on CCTV. Before the foes of CCTV start crying “waste”, it should be pointed out that your average CCTV control room is more than just a CCTV control room, it provides services for many other socially beneficial functions. If you are going to have operators in the control room 24/7, why not have them monitor social alarms for the elderly and vulnerable, handle out of hours emergency calls and monitor burglar alarms at council buildings.

The real point here is that councils for the most part feel they are getting value for money because otherwise they would decommission it. Yes, councils are free to turn the systems off at any time because they are not a statutory service (at least not yet). The fact that a few councils like Skipton have turned off their small systems is not proof that CCTV is a waste of money but rather that councils could turn the systems off if they wanted to, but the vast majority do not.

Cost effectiveness

If we analyse the cost effectiveness of CCTV systems, we first have to define what we mean by “effective”. If we choose a very narrow definition of effectiveness, we could measure just detections, arrests and assists. If the average CCTV system got credited with just 1,000 of these incidents (a low figure for a 100 camera system) and they have an annual operating budget of £500,000, then we could say each incident cost £500.

Now consider that if you hand that evidence to the police, how much time will that save them in investigating a crime? Certainly more than £500. And some crimes might never be solved without CCTV, for instance the murders of prostitutes in Ipswich in 2006, the investigation of which relied heavily on CCTV images.

As I mentioned already, CCTV control rooms are natural focal points for other vital council services, including Careline and similar schemes which provide a friendly voice on the end of the telephone to thousands of elderly people who otherwise would have to move into care homes. As Peter Webster at Slough pointed out to me in a recent Rooms with a View article, the peak activity levels on Careline calls dovetails very neatly with the troughs in CCTV activity, with the result that his two or three control room operators are kept busy throughout the day and night with these two activities.

The annual spend on local authority CCTV systems pales into insignificance compared to the policing budget of more than £10 billion a year. If we followed BBW’s recommendation and transferred the entire CCTV budget to the police, firstly the police would lose an invaluable source of intelligence which they use on a regular basis and you would only boost policing budgets by a paltry 2.5 per cent.

Not that we can rely on BBW’s use of figures. Its report plays fast and loose with the numbers, citing as an example Staffordshire Moorland’s decision to spend £500,000 on a new CCTV system, money which BBW claims would have funded 22 new police officers. Even if we accept BBW’s cost for a police officer of £22,680 (and that’s disingenuous because that’s the starting salary and doesn’t take into account support and ancillary costs), £500,000 would only fund those officers for one year. What do you do then? Sack them all?

If you take the average lifetime of a CCTV system as being between five and ten years, and factor in 20 per cent ancillary costs to the price of a PC (including pay rises after the first couple of years) and then add in the annual monitoring costs of the system (£20,000), you might get three or four extra officers per year from that money. Given that it takes at least four officers to man a complete 24-hour shift, 365 days a year, the result is precisely one extra officer walking the beat for your investment.

I think that doesn’t hold a candle to the benefits of having 40 CCTV cameras, providing continuous monitoring and recorded evidence at potential crime hotspots. All provided at zero cost to the police - no wonder they love CCTV.

Caught on camera

BBW further states that the quality of footage “is frequently too poor to be used in courts”. I don’t know where he gets this idea from, but according to DCI Mick Neville of the Metropolitan Police Service’s Circulation Unit (which collects and circulates images of suspects caught on CCTV), even the poorest quality images are useful to police investigations. He told me in a recent interview that, according to his research, quality of images is not an issue, and he collects the vast majority of his images from some of the worst CCTV systems in London (namely, privately owned systems, frequently corner shops and pubs and clubs).

BBW says control rooms are rarely manned 24 hours a day. According to CCTV User Group research, that is not the case – almost all large systems are manned continuously, it’s smaller systems that rely on part-time monitoring.

Anyway, what point is BBW trying to make? First it complains about the expense of these systems then it complains that councils aren’t funding continuous monitoring. It seems to me that they are not quite sure what they want from CCTV.

Finally, one last thought for BBW and others who oppose CCTV

Video surveillance is a discretionary function for councils. If you oppose it, why don’t you, as a test case, use the power of democracy and try to convince three councils to decommission it? Take a small town system, a metropolitan borough (outside London) and a London borough and mount campaigns to scrap CCTV. I’m sure you could find local residents to champion your cause. You could provide them with technical and logistical support and see how far you get.

I doubt you would succeed but it would certainly be more effective than your anti-CCTV “Guerrilla Sticker Campaign” – and create less of a blight on the environment!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

CCTV industry gets a regulator

The CCTV industry in England and Wales is to have an Oversight Body and an interim regulator, it was announced yesterday.

Policing Minister David Hanson, in a written statement to the House of Commons, said the new arrangements were put in place “to progress implementation of the National CCTV Strategy published in 2007”. (Full details of his statement here)

He said the changes were designed to:

* ensure the industry, both public and private, can contribute to national standards
* raise public awareness of the benefits of CCTV
* hold accountable owners and users of CCTV systems.

The Forensic Science Regulator, Andrew Rennison, has been appointed interim CCTV regulator for a period of up to 12 months. He will work with the National CCTV Strategy Board on six key areas:

* Developing national standards
* Determining training requirements
* Scoping out regulation
* Promoting public understanding of CCTV
* Advising on the implementation of the National Strategy
* Building an effective complaints process.

The National CCTV Oversight Body – of which the regulator will be part – will comprise a Strategy Delivery Board which will be supported by an Independent Advisory Group. The Delivery Board will be a slimmed down version of the Programme Board which at its peak had some 25 members. The eight members of the Delivery Board will be drawn from government including the Home Office, Ministry of Justice and ACPO.

The regulator

I spoke with Andrew Rennison yesterday, shortly after the Ministerial announcement. My interview with him will appear in the next edition of CCTV Image, to be published at end of January 2010, but here’s a sneak preview of what he said to me.

His primary objective is to assess the framework for regulation of CCTV in England and Wales with the objective of producing a report for Ministers by the end of 2010 that will make recommendations for the way forward:

* Does the regulation of CCTV require legislation or will voluntary compliance be sufficient?
* Do we need a CCTV regulator and, if so, what form should it take and where should it sit within the structure of government?
* What standards are required for the industry for equipment, installation and operations?
* To what extent should privately-owned CCTV be regulated?
* What standards are required for the forensic use of CCTV?

Mr Rennison made it clear that, although he is the Forensic Science Regulator, his remit to examine the CCTV industry goes further than the “forensic science bit”. He is not here to regulate the industry across the board – as the interim regulator, his job is to identify the areas that need regulation and draw up a framework and identify the resources that will be required to implement it.

He is keen to consult as widely as possible with the industry. He will attend meetings of the Independent Advisory Group along with organisations like ACPO, the Local Government Association, Liberty, the HOSDB and the CCTV User Group (representing owners and users of public space CCTV systems).

Mr Rennison said he aims to have a plan published by mid-February which will lay out a roadmap for his year in office. A public consultation document will be published by July to provide interested parties four to five months to offer their views. Based on public feedback, he will write his final report for the Government (whoever they may be!) for the end of 2010.

More on my interview with Mr Rennison in the January 2010 edition of CCTV Image which will be available in print and online in PDF format from our website –

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

New standards for the use of CCTV images, as well as new guidance to ensure that police use CCTV images more effectively

The news comes after the Home Office’s own experts found in a series of reports that CCTV was only effective in cutting vehicle crime and has little effect in reducing other offence.

Andy Rennison, the current Forensic Science Regulator, is understood to have been given the task of implementing the 44 recommendations of the two-year old National CCTV Strategy .

The strategy called for the creation of a “basic CCTV infrastructure” while also promoting “CCTV and its expansion by forming evidence-based business cases”.

There has also been frustration that despite the growth of the cameras, they are used only to solve a fraction of crimes. One source said: “Police need to make better use of CCTV evidence - they need a more systematic approach to ID suspects.

David Hanson, the Home Office minister, is expected to tell MPs that by the end of March, 17 of the 44 recommendations will have been implemented. A handful of the measures which have been overtaken by new technology are under review.

The CCTV network in the UK is already the largest in the world with the equivalent of one camera for every 12 people. Yet questions have been raised about its effectiveness.
Earlier this year research by the Home Office found that flooding town centres and housing estates with cameras did not have a significant impact on crime. In one city, it only led to increased reporting of offences to the police.

An analysis of 44 research studies found that cameras are at their most effective in reducing car crime in car parks, especially when used alongside improved lighting and the introduction of security guards.
The Campbell Collaboration said CCTV is now the single most heavily-funded crime prevention measure operating outside the criminal justice system, accounting for more than three quarters of spending on crime prevention by the Home Office.

Charles Farrier, a spokesman for campaign group NoCCTV, said the statement on the implementation of the strategy showed that “they are ploughing ahead regardless” of the criticism over the use of CCTV.

But Tom Reeve, editor of CCTV Image magazine, said: “CCTV is very effective to police to investigate crimes, even when the images not crystal clear. They lead to other avenues of investigation

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