Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

February 24, 2005

Spy-cams don’t stop crime

Filed under: — Different River @ 4:42 pm

The Evening Standard, a newspaper in London, the city with perhaps the most surveillance cameras per square mile kilometer than anywhere else, is reporting that even the government there admits that the cameras don’t reduce crime. The only exception they found was for cameras in parking lots. But the cameras on public streets, the ones that were supposed to eliminate crime in central London, aren’t doing that. All they do is infringe people’s privacy without conferring any countervailing benefit.

Closed circuit TV systems are of little use in the fight against crime, a surprise government report claims today.

Home Office researchers who studied 14 schemes across Britain found that only one had brought a clear fall in the local crime rate.

The findings come as a blow to the Home Office, which has trumpeted CCTV as a key crime-fighting weapon for the past 10 years.

The report’s author, Professor Martin Gill of the University of Leicester, said: “For supporters these findings are disappointing. For the most part CCTV did not produce reductions in crime and did not make people feel safer.”

Note that they not only did not reduce crime, but they “did not make people feel safer.” I guess according to professor Gill, if they did not reduce crime, but fooled people into feeling safer, that would be better than doing neither.

I find the emphasis on “feeling safer” very disturbing — the implication is that “feeling safer” is a benefit separate and distinct from “being safer,” and that it is a good thing to at least make people feel safer even if we can’t make them actually safer. This is not only wrong, it’s backwards — if you feel safer than you are, you are likely to take actions that make you even less safe. If you feel too safe in a car, you may not wear your seatbelt, which makes you less safe than you would be if you felt a bit unsafe and wore it. Likewise, if you feel more safe from crime than you really are, you might not take precautions that are actually justified given the actual level of safety you have.

The goal ought to be to make people actually safer, and have them feel exactly as safe as they are, no more and no less. (You don’t want people to feel too unsafe either, because then they will wastefully take unnecessary precautions.)

The article ended with the following curious statement:

On the plus side, only one in six people objected to CCTV on civil liberties grounds.

Well, there’s unbiased journalism for you! How would they feel about someone writring this: “On the plus side, only one in six people objected to censorship of the press on civil liberties grounds.”

I rather think it’s on the minus side, that so few people think that centralized surveillance in the tradition of 1984 is objectionable on civil liberties grounds.

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