television (CCTV) is the most vibrant color on the security engineer’s
and integrator’s palette, but it can also be the most wasteful. It all
hinges on whether you understand its limitations. I’ve designed,
specified, or surveyed hundred’s of CCTV systems and, in my opinion,
from 25% to 50% of video cameras represent wasted money, depending on
the application. In some cases, there are serious hidden legal
CCTV sales exploded
after 9-11. No one has definitive numbers and industry-generated
estimates vary wildly, but annual revenues from CCTV sales are likely to
range from $1.3 to $2.4 billion.
According to Security Sales & Integration Annual Installation Business Report
(2006), CCTV installations experienced the second highest increase ever
recorded. (The highest was in 2003, a little more than a year after
9-11.) Moreover, companies reported average gross profit margins of
39%. That’s pretty good.
Schools are not the
largest market by any means, but they are the most troubling. There is a
virtual pandemic of schools installing video cameras willy-nilly in the
aftermath of Columbine and Virginia Tech. The lay public,
unfortunately, doesn’t understand the technology and ignorantly believes
that the simple act of installing cameras stops crime. Cash-starved
high schools, in particular, may be choosing video surveillance over
higher teacher pay, text books, or afterschool programs for students.
CCTV is a superb investigative tool after something terrible occurs, but
then again, the identification of the shooters in the recent incidents
at schools didn’t require video to identify the perpetrators. With very
few exceptions, it is almost a useless tool to prevent serious crimes
in most schools because they rarely—if ever—have the staff to
effectively monitor the cameras. Too often, the monitors are tucked
beneath the counter at the main reception desk.
I recall a marketing
interview I had with a major New England university. I told their chief
of security and the consultant selection committee that they were
planning to buy many more cameras than they needed. I didn’t get that
job. It’s not what he wanted to hear.
Crime Prevention Pitfalls
Video is ineffectual
because it only has crime prevention value under two circumstances: a
human continuously monitors it and can call on an almost instantaneous
response when a crime occurs. Few organizations (save the CIA and
similar high-security facilities) have the resources to effectively
implement these two prerequisites.
In addition to the
potentially exorbitant costs of buying and installing a full coverage
video system, the consequent life-cycle costs (labor, repair, and
maintenance costs) are massive over time if the video system is properly
managed. The alertness of security console operators peaks in 20
minutes, according to many studies. It is necessary to change
monitoring duties every two hours for optimal surveillance—hence, the
very high labor costs. Moreover, a human can’t efficiently and reliably
watch more than 9 to 12 monitors—let alone the dozens of monitors that
can be found at some security monitoring centers. There is a paradox at
play. CCTV is potentially the most valuable security resource as well as
the most misused and wasteful. It is the familiar story of having too
much of a good thing.
Getting back to cost, as
a rule of thumb, each indoor camera averages $1500 (as a complete,
installed cost, including power, wire, and conduit) and each outdoor
camera, $3500. If all the bells and whistles are added, per camera
costs for outdoor, day/night units can easily approach $9,800 per
position and up to $60,000 for very exotic capabilities and for very
difficult locations. For a very large school, university, hospital,
shopping mall, parking garage, or office building, the final costs for
complete video systems can range from hundreds of thousands to millions
of dollars. Sometimes these expenditures are like flushing money down a
To put what I have been
saying into a useful context, a very short tutorial is called for. CCTV
serves three primary functions: perform surveillance; support
post-incident investigations, including identification; and automate a
function, such as at remotely controlled doors or vehicle entrances. It
has momentous value for crime investigation. Most organizations,
however, purchase video systems with the generally unrealistic
expectations that it will prevent crime. Often, they have little
understanding of security console operations or ergonomics.
There are some
interesting and growing secondary applications that are mostly benign.
The increasing popularity of “nanny cams” is well known. The use of CCTV
to catch red light runners at busy intersections, to read license
plates at tollbooths and airport parking garages, and to catch speeders
is also common now. Similarly, video cameras can reduce bad behavior on
school buses. Cameras also work well for law enforcement sting
operations. Police park a “bait” automobile in an area known for high
incidents of car theft and car-jackings. When the miscreant enters the
vehicle, the police can remotely lock the doors and record the event on
video. But as valuable as these various uses are, these kinds of
applications rarely involve thwarting serious crimes. Moreover, they
document a crime; they don’t prevent it.
The use of CCTV in
conjunction with very sophisticated facial recognition software is an
interesting case study. Every city that has installed these extremely
expensive systems, such as Tampa and Virginia Beach, eventually shut
them down. Facial recognition isn’t ready for prime time yet. This new
technology fits the same pattern: the consumer does not understand the
limitations of unfamiliar technology.
CCTV in Public Places
The installation of
massive video nets in public spaces is another mounting trend,
especially in light of the remarkable success the British had on several
occasions in identifying and then tracking suspected terrorists after
an attack. Bear in mind that the United Kingdom has 4.2 million CCTV
cameras in place. There is a camera for every 14 people and an average
Londoner is seen on camera 300 times each day. The United States isn’t
even close to that kind of surveillance saturation on a per capita
basis, but we’re catching up fast. City after city is embarking on
public video surveillance programs. By some accounts, downtown Manhattan
already has 4,200 public and private sector video cameras. The NYPD
would like to install 3,000 new cameras by the end of 2008. Police
departments in Baltimore, Hollywood, Houston, Memphis, Newark, San
Diego, Tampa, Virginia Beach, Washington, D.C., and in many other cities
are installing video cameras and connecting to feeds from private
sector CCTV systems. This is a great idea if the objective is to support
post-incident investigations. Whether these systems contribute to crime
reduction is still controversial—and in my view, dubious.
With the recent Federal
trend toward design-build contracts, government bodies at all levels
typically uses companies that sell and install video systems to
determine how much CCTV they need, rather than impartial security
engineers and consultants. It’s not exactly a surprise that these
companies want to sell and install as many CCTV systems as they possibly
can. Moreover, this is a partial explanation of the exponential growth
of citywide video systems. Yet another reason for this growth is the
ever-mounting pressure from the Department of Homeland Security for more
and more video. Bear in mind that the British didn’t prevent any of
their terrorist attacks as a result of video surveillance. Could it
happen in the future? Sure, even a blind hog can find an acorn now and
The effectiveness of
CCTV in public spaces to reduce crime is counterintuitive and
controversial. It is not at all clear that crime rates are reduced. Some
criminologists think that crime is only displaced by video systems.
When studies do claim CCTV does reduce crime, the reduction is usually
In 1995, a study was conducted to determine the deterrent value of various crime prevention factors for convenience stores.
These variables included how much cash was kept on site, retreat
distance, police patrolling, an armed clerk, and so forth. The
researcher interviewed robbers and asked them to rank the most important
factors in deciding whether or not to commit the robbery. Of 11
factors, a camera system ranked tenth and video recording, eleventh.
These findings were compared to a similar study that was conducted in
1985: the rankings had hardly changed. The finding was also similar to
the results from a study completed in the 1970s. The top two reasons a
robber would decide against holding up a store were too little money
kept on site and a long or complicated escape route.
Another phenomenon that
could be at play in determining if CCTV deters crime is something called
the Hawthorne Effect (or variously, the Westinghouse Effect), a term
coined by a study conducted in 1939 at the Hawthorne Plant of Western
Electric Company. Efficiency experts wanted to determine the optimal
working conditions for maximum production. Among various techniques,
the researchers found that increasing lighting increased production. But
there was a surprise. When they later reduced lighting levels to
bracket peak efficiency—to the point that workers couldn’t see (some
even brought in lamps from home)—production still increased. The
explanation is a variant of the famous Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle,
well known to Star Trek fans. The Principle states that “the act of
observing alters that which is being observed.” This can occur in
various ways. There may be direct interference. There can be unconscious
bias in reading or collecting the data. There can be factors
interacting with the situation that are undiscovered.
conducted a number of lighting studies following the city-wide riots in
April 1968 following the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination. They
wanted to learn what type of lighting was best to fight crime:
low-pressure sodium, high-pressure sodium, mercury vapor, metal halides,
etc. The study seemed to demonstrate that all lighting reduced crime.
It wasn’t until years
later when the results were scrubbed by social psychologists and
criminologists that the results became suspect. Was it the lighting or
was it because squad cars were parked on every street to observe the
effects? Or, were police officers subconsciously (or consciously)
motivated to underreport crime if their performance was being
evaluated? Which played the greatest role? That notwithstanding, few
authorities would dispute the conclusion that lighting (and CCTV) can
effectively displace crime.
Displacement is a very
good thing if you happen to live or work in a high crime area. It’s not
such a good thing if you live in the area the crime is moving to. The
chief question is, “Does CCTV actually reduce crime?” City politicians
are more than willing to glom onto crime statistics to suggest that this
or that program they championed reduced crime. When crime reductions do
occur, a pantheon of factors likely causes the decline. The state of
the local and national economy, for example, plays a major role.
Civil Liberty and Liability Concerns.There
is another very important question that some people feel very strongly,
if not fanatically, about. Does saturation video surveillance in public
areas violate the right to privacy? Or, is it a Fourth Amendment issue,
which governs against unreasonable searches and seizures? The U.S.
Supreme Court in United States vs. Knotts put part of this
matter to bed by determining that surveillance was constitutional when
conducted in areas where there should be no expectation of privacy.
However, the other shoe still hasn’t dropped. Does CCTV surveillance
represent unreasonable search? Ever? Sometimes? Most authorities
believe that the Supreme Court will continue to rule in favor of public
video surveillance, but it isn’t a dead issue.
Legal liability is yet
another volatile issue related to video surveillance. In our ever
litigious society being a crime victim (or faking it) can sometimes be
like winning the lottery. Negligent security torts are common and
increasing in frequency. The lawsuits spawned by the 1993 attack on the
World Trade Center in Manhattan were only finally settled earlier this
year—14 years later. The defendants paid millions. Lawsuits pertaining
to the 9-11 attacks are going to the courts now.
Sometimes lawsuits are,
and will be, deserving, because there is true gross negligence at work. I
know of one smallish company that couldn’t afford a complete video
surveillance system, so they only purchased the cameras. There were no
wires or monitors. The idea was that the sight of the cameras along the
roofline watching a dark and unfenced employee parking lot would deter
theft, robbery, and rape. If someone is assaulted in spite of the
cameras, someone at that company should not only pay the future victims
handsomely; they should probably go to jail.
Despite their many
limitations and problems, CCTV systems can also be an extremely powerful
weapon in the security arsenal. It is of critical importance in a
post-incident criminal investigation: sometimes it provides the only
clues available to law enforcement. The British success in identifying
and then finding terrorists is phenomenal.
Video can support other
important uses as well. Security guards can do virtual tours of a large
building or outdoor area without leaving the guard booth. Some cameras
can see in the dark. If you are using an access card to unlock a door
on a cold, rainy night, and if for some reason it doesn’t unlock, the
availability of an intercom and a camera showing you to a security guard
is priceless. License-plate readers have been a boon to toll booth
operators and small towns needing more revenue from speeders and red
light runners. Now that technology has taken us to digital video and
IP-networked surveillance, the varying applications for CCTV are
spectacular. The key for security managers is to understand the system’s
limitations so they choose the right system for their organization,
without squandering too many resources and without making grandiose
claims that only create a false sense of security.
John J. Strauchs, CPP, is Senior Principal of Strauchs LLC.