Use of closed circuit television cameras by government agencies (police, hospitals, schools, rail and road authorities) and private bodies (retailers, taxi operators, private security services) continues to increase. In the UK it has been claimed that the average citizen is captured by 300 cameras each day, that there were around 1.5 million cameras in 400 communities as of 2002 (with 40,000 operated by local government, up from 100 in 1990), and that distinctions between private and public space are eroding.

Most developed countries, Australia included, are witnessing increased government and public concerns about crime and security. Amid these anxieties, closed circuit television (CCTV) systems to monitor public spaces are increasingly being touted as a solution to problems of crime and disorder. The city of Perth established Australia’s first open street closed circuit television system in July 1991. Subsequently, there has been significant expansion.

At the end of 2002 Australia had 33 “open street” CCTV schemes. Based on site inspections, extensive reviews of documentation and interviews with 22 Australian administrators, this article discusses issues relating to system implementation, management and accountability. We also suggest ways relevant authorities might ensure that current and future schemes are appropriately audited and evaluated. We argue that rigorous independent assessment of both the intended and unintended consequences of open street CCTV is essential to ensure this measure is not deployed inappropriately. Finally, this article suggests any potential crime prevention benefits must be carefully weighed against the potential of CCTV to exacerbate social division and exclusion.

There is no consensus on the effectiveness of public CCTV as a deterrent or an effective mechanism for responding to crime, although there are strong suggestions that the technological fix is overrated and oversold. Organisations responding to the “need to be doing something” are susceptible to spending money on equipment acquisition and deployment without appropriate investment in ongoing monitoring.

In practice the value of CCTV is often forensic - as a tool for identifying what happened - rather preventive, something that is unsurprising as some images are not closely monitored (“no one is actually watching what’s seen by the eye in the sky”), image quality is poor or devices are not working, and help is not readily at hand if the observer does identify an incident.

A Shoalhaven (NSW) resident has started a petition calling on the council to remove CCTV cameras from Nowra’s CBD. The council is currently installing 18 day and night cameras, but Adam Bonner says the cameras are an invasion of privacy. “I think there’s a wide opportunity there for abuse,” he said. In response Mayor Paul Green says people who are doing the right thing should not fear the cameras.

Canadian Privacy Comissioner: “If we cannot walk or drive down the street without being systematically monitored by the cameras of the state, our lives and our society will be irretrievably altered. The psychological impact of having to live in a sense of constantly being observed must surely be enormous, indeed incalculable. We will have to adapt, and adapt we undoubtedly will. But something profoundly precious - our right to feel anonymous and private as we go about our day-to-day lives will have been lost forever.”

Several commentators (e.g., Bannister, Fyfe, & Kearns, 1998; Dees, 2000; Fyfe & Bannister, 1996) link the rise of CCTV to the tendency for urban centres to be transformed from sites of production to sites of consumerism and consumption. They argue that populations are being divided into competent and “flawed” consumers--the latter lacking resources to participate in a consumerist economy.

The globalising of commerce has also led to a commodification of individual town and city centres. Such centres are increasingly image conscious and CCTV has played an important part in marketing public areas to tourists, other consumers and investors as “risk-free” (McCahill, 2002, p. 12). Intertwined with the reshaping of urban images has been the rise of an exclusionary impulse--a desire to rid public spaces of flawed consumers . As McCahill suggests, “the visibility of unemployed or homeless people on the streets or hanging around in shopping centres.

To some, it’s comforting to imagine vigilant police monitoring every camera, but the truth is very different. Most CCTV footage is never looked at until well after a crime is committed. When it is examined, it’s very common for the viewers not to identify suspects. Lighting is bad and images are grainy, and criminals tend not to stare helpfully at the lens. Cameras break far too often. The best camera systems can still be thwarted by sunglasses or hats. Even when they afford quick identification — think of the 2005 London transport bombers and the 9/11 terrorists — police are often able to identify suspects without the cameras. Cameras afford a false sense of security, encouraging laziness when we need police to be vigilant.

The solution isn’t for police to watch the cameras. Unlike an officer walking the street, cameras only look in particular directions at particular locations. Criminals know this, and can easily adapt by moving their crimes to someplace not watched by a camera — and there will always be such places. Additionally, while a police officer on the street can respond to a crime in progress, the same officer in front of a CCTV screen can only dispatch another officer to arrive much later. By their very nature, cameras result in underused and misallocated police resources.



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