CCTV: Panacea or Problem

Physical Security
CCTV: Panacea or Problem

Closed-circuit 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 liabilities.

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 toilet.

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 then.

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 marginal.

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.

Washington, D.C., 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.