Is a London style surveillance network the answer for U.S. cities? Many in law enforcement circles in this country envy the British system, which has a network of thousands of cameras which are always recording. Many officials here in the U.S. want the capabilities that British police recently demonstrated after the foiled car bomb attacks in London.
Most of the cameras are on public streets, highways, subways, buses, tunnels, and in large public facilities. Police in Britain are able to go back and track vehicles within London and can even track vehicles from city to city, long after an incident has occurred.
Officials In the U.S. are now slowly beginning to adopt a British style surveillance program, even though such systems would not be as effective in this country, due to the high number of police jurisdictions and the various State, County, and City laws. Much of the British system is national and operated by a few agencies, allowing the network to operate efficiently. Here in the U.S., there will inevitably be disputes about who will operate the system, the rules for operation, who would be responsible for maintenance, who would be responsible for responding to reports, and who would pay for it.
There is also the notion (somewhat misguided) that such systems would prevent terrorism. This is not the case. International terrorists are not deterred by the presence of surveillance cameras. Cameras did not stop the July 2006 bombings in London, did not stop the latest bombing attempts, nor did they stop the terrorist attacks in Madrid Spain. Why? Because Muslim extremists are not deterred by conventional security measures. These individuals have accepted martyrdom as their fate and want to fulfill what they see as a mission for their God. This is not like a domestic criminal who robs a bank and doesn’t want to be recognized. On the contrary, Muslim extremists don’t mind, and often want to be caught on surveillance video so that they can get credit for their deed. This only inflates their legacy as a Martyr. Therefore, in the context of international terrorism, surveillance cameras in most cases would only assist law enforcement with piecing together what happened after the fact.
I have over a decade of experience operating surveillance systems. I also covered the issue of surveillance cameras while in college. I was once on the fence about surveillance (many years ago). I used to be more skeptical about the need for such systems every single place that we go. In fact, I am still somewhat against the idea of “big brother” hanging over us constantly, particularly in our workplaces and schools. However, when it comes to surveillance systems in public areas, such as the network in Britain, my position has softened quite a bit, although I still have some misgivings. Such surveillance systems are typically in areas where there is no expectation of privacy. And they are very useful in curbing the kinds of domestic crimes where normal criminals are concerned about being caught in the act.
I feel that under the right conditions (appropriate rules and regulations) such cameras could be useful. Furthermore, surveillance video is typically seen as more reliable than human witnesses. You could role play the same 2 minute event to 100 people in the same room, then separately interview each person afterwards and you would get 100 different variations of the same event. Everyone has a different perception of what they see…and they sometimes omit, embellish or simply forget some parts of what they see. Or they simply may not be good at expressing what happened. Cameras are useful at eliminating that problem- a problem that has been a nuisance since the early days of modern policing, which ironically started in London.
Of course the other concern is are we giving up our privacy with these cameras? My take is that we have not crossed that line just yet, but we may be on a slippery slope. A London type surveillance program is not too intrusive, but such a system could open the door to more intrusive surveillance measures 20, 30, or 40 years down the road.
But as of right now, if you are not breaking the law… I would say you have nothing to worry about. Camera operators typically don’t want to waste their time following law abiding citizens. They typically monitor people who are exhibiting behaviors that provide some sort of probable cause or reasonable suspicion to warrant the monitoring.
Hear a great audio discussion about this issue from the On Point Radio program from a few days ago. LISTEN HERE (Use Realplayer Option).
Our we giving up too much privacy with these surveillance systems? Is a London style camera network a good idea for U.S. cities?