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!


  1. have you had a lot of reponse about this story Tom - i saw the number of reponses in the CCTV User Group forum

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