The June 2007 attempted terror attacks in Britain have reignited discussions of surveillance cameras and their role in the effort to prevent terrorism. This is especially true because Britain has constructed the world’s largest system of video surveillance cameras. Some have even suggested that the incident shows the need for other countries to follow Britain’s lead on cameras. But:
- This week’s terrorists were plainly not deterred by London’s extensive camera systems. The attacks were fortunately botched, but not for reasons that had anything to do with surveillance cameras. In London it was human observation and common-sense that appears to have thwarted the attack. In Glasgow, it was physical security – airport barriers – that prevented the attack from succeeding.
- We don’t know all the facts yet about the investigation of the attempted attacks and how it is being conducted – and our only source for facts about the investigation is the police, who may have an incentive to tout certain technologies they have spent billions on. However, even if it is true that CCTV helped identify the bombers after the fact, that still does not end the matter.
- The key question to ask is not, “do cameras provide any potential benefit in the fight against terrorism.” The questions are, “do cameras provide enough benefit to justify their cost?” and “what are those costs?”
- The UK spends approximately 20 percent of its criminal justice budget on video surveillance. The right question to ask is: could Britons have gotten greater security benefits if that huge sum of money had been spent on more effective strategies?
- The costs of pervasive public video surveillance include the potential for the tracking of innocent people, voyeurism and other abuses, and a tremendous chilling effect on our public life. If terrorist attacks are allowed to become justifications for pervasive surveillance, the day will come when we will find ourselves living in an alien society, and regret not asking tougher questions about these technologies, their costs, and their supposed benefits.
- Overall, video surveillance is a prime example of an ineffective technology. Londoners are under greater surveillance than anyone else in the democratic world. But everyone from academic criminologists to the British Home Office has studied the impact of that surveillance, and has been unable to find any impact on the crime rate. At best, it has a displacement effect – moving crimes from where the cameras are to where they are not.
- One can construct scenarios or story lines for any technology in which that technology saves the day and prevents atrocities, but what we need to do is figure out what is likely to be effective in saving lives.
- The fact is, video surveillance is a failed technology that only diverts resources from law enforcement or anti-terrorism measures that will be more effective. London is notorious as a city in which subway crime, for example, is captured on video, but there are insufficient police officers to follow up.
- Cameras will obviously not deter suicide bombers who are not worried about being identified in the course of the investigation that follows – and may, since the purpose of a terrorist attack is to terrorize and to gain publicity, actually attract them since the cameras create video footage for latter use on television.
- Experience has already shown that perpetrators who, unlike suicide bombers, are concerned with being caught after the fact, will find ways to make sure that the cameras are no help toward that end – whether by disabling the cameras or hiding in crowds or obscuring or disguising their appearance with simple steps like a hat pulled down over their faces or simply moving their activities to places where there are no cameras.
- Ultimately, boundless human ingenuity will always defeat technological solutions such as cameras. Rather than turning into a surveillance society, we have no choice but to rely upon old fashioned intelligence and investigatory techniques (the only thing that has ever succeeded in actually stopping an attack), as well as attacking the root causes of terrorism and improving our ability to respond to an attack.
More information about video surveillance can be found on the Web site at: www.aclu.org/cameras.
Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.