In many places, such as London’s transport system, these cameras significantly influence public behaviour. As the trend of increasing CCTV coverage increases, individuals and business owners would do well to understand the history, uses, potential implications, and criticism of these systems.
As with many 20th-century technological innovations, the history of CCTV began in WWII-era Germany. The first CCTV cameras were developed to remotely observe weapons testing, and as technology advanced CCTV systems were installed at rocket launch sites to allow specialists to safely observe the entire launch process of dangerous space rockets.
Today, the primary purpose of CCTV is decidedly more personal. Since the late 1960s, when a small city in New York state pioneered the use of CCTV cameras to observe pedestrian traffic on its high street in an effort to reduce crime, more and more of these cameras have been installed in high-traffic areas to manage and control crowds. Nowhere has this been more prevalent–or more successful–than in the UK, where initial experiments in Bournemouth soon after the New York project have been made permanent and expanded many times over. Today, it is impossible to walk down the street in most UK cities without being captured at least once on CCTV.
Not all CCTV systems are created equal, however. Repeated controlled studies have demonstrated that CCTV cameras in car parks and parking garages are by far the most effective, possibly because the limited surface area of these places allows for fuller camera coverage. Instances of mugging and sexual assault, the most common types of crimes in these areas, have fallen by more than half after the installation of CCTV systems. On-street cameras in shopping districts, on the other hand, are far less successful. This may be due to high levels of foot traffic in these areas, which studies have shown both depresses crime to begin with and makes it more difficult for those watching transmitted video to positively identify individuals in the crowd.
The proliferation of CCTV systems has aroused much concern from privacy activists and ordinary citizens concerned about being constantly observed by law enforcement or security personnel. As a deterrent a good quality CCTV system can be worth it’s weight in gold. Criminals tend to take the path of least resistance so if they see cameras are installed they tend to walk on and look for a softer target.
One misconception holds that the use of CCTV is a state power grab, designed to create an Orwellian culture of constant observation. In truth, many CCTV systems are privately owned, designed to protect businesses with large amounts of property like rail yards, scrap yards, warehouses, and department stores. Additionally, even large law enforcement agencies like London’s Metropolitan Police lack the manpower to watch every single CCTV camera in their systems at all times. In practice, most CCTV cameras simply record and archive footage continuously and these videos are only rolled out for viewing if a crime has been committed in the area. The vast majority of footage is never viewed.
Some argue that even if CCTV footage is never viewed, the very fact that it is recorded and archived is a violation of privacy rights. However, the vast majority of crime reduction attributable to CCTV systems comes as a result of its deterrent effects rather than the presence of a physical record to observe. In other words, the very existence of a CCTV system is enough to make would-be criminals think twice about causing trouble. In theory, the cameras would not even have to record to provide this service.