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The London Attacks and CCTV:
The horrendous terrorist attacks in London last weeek will have many long-term effects, and one of them with interesting implications for civil liberties in the United States is the role of closed-circuit TV cameras, or CCTV. As U.S. readers may recall from Jeffrey Rosen's October 2001 essay in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Britain has invested heavily in a comprehensive CCTV network as an anti-terrorism strategy. Most of what I know about Britain's CCTV network I know from Rosen's piece, but my understanding is that one of the key purposes of the system is help the authorities identify terrorists and expose their network in the event of an attack.

  I have conflicting views about the overall merits of this kind of approach. It's a very complicated question, and my sense is that the devil is in the details of how it is implemented. Nonetheless, it seems worth noting that the London CCTV network appears to have produced some helpful information about the London attacks, at least so far. The discovery of a CCTV picture of one of the terrorists, 18-year-old Hasib Hussain, is now the lead story at many news sites around the world. According to a story in This Is Local London, the authorities so far have used CCTV to identify Hussein and trace him from the time he entered the Luton train station at 7:20 am until his arrival at 8:26 at the Kings Cross station:
  The grainy image was captured by CCTV cameras at the station and discoverd by one of the hundreds of police officers scanning footage for clues.
  Hussain had previously travelled from West Yorkshire and police believe he arrived in London with three other men.
  Later he would board a No 30 bus bound for Hackney carrying a deadly rucksack containing a ten pound bomb.
  Police are still appealing for assistance in placing his movements between his 08.26am arrival at Kings Cross and the explosion on the bus at 09.47am, almost an hour after his accomplices detonated coordinated devices on Tube trains.
  Needless to say, none of this settles the question of whether CCTV cameras are a good idea, either in Britain, the United States, or anywhere else. But it will be interesting to see how much or how little information the CCTV camera records will provide as the authorities continue to scan the footage for clues of the attack.
Gary Imhoff (mail) (www):
Washington, DC's, mayor was already entranced with the idea of installing surveillance cameras throughout the city, in the residential neighborhoods as well as in the federal sector. He is now using the London attack as an excuse to promote expanding the surveillance camera system -- see this article in today's Washington Post.

There are good civil liberties and pricacy arguments against public surveillance cameras, but the most powerful argument is the practical, pragmatic one -- the cameras don't work for the purposes for which they are promoted. As the London bombings showed, and as thousands of robberies of convenience stores over decades have proven, surveillance cameras are useless as tools of crime prevention or deterrance. They don't do anything to assist the police to detect or stop crimes before they happen or while they are in progress.

Surveillance cameras may help provide clues to solve a crime or identify suspects after the crime is committed, but they should not be sold as increasing public safety and security. They're useless for that purpose.
7.14.2005 3:09pm
cathyf:
Ignore for a moment the question of preventing attacks, and focus simply on the question of solving the crimes after they happen. Is it my imagination, or did US law enforcement manage to come up with a huge amount of info on the 1993 WTC bombing, OK City bombing and 9/11 within hours, and all without a CCTV network?

Maybe they were just lucky? Or maybe the CCTV networks distract investigators from better tools and techniques?

cathy :-)
7.14.2005 3:43pm
Bill Harshaw (mail) (www):
Cathyf: Think it's apples and oranges. In both 1993 and Ok city there was forensic evidence, the remains of the rental vehicle; in 9/11 there were the seat assignments and the clues from the passengers on the last hijacked plane (plus some video of some of the hijackers going through security, but I'm not sure whether that was terribly vital). You don't have a destroyed rental vehicle or seat assignments for 7/7. Presumably the backpacks and personal property, plus the ethnic background, might have led the police to the same culprits, but taken more time.

How about switching the burden? How many cases of abuse of surveillance cameras have been confirmed in London and DC? I can't remember any, though that may just be me.
7.14.2005 3:55pm
LiquidLatex (mail):
I'm happy to report that the Miami police chief is possibly changing his opinion on public video cameras.

Honestly there are no rational/logical non-Orwellian reasons why the police should not have every public street wired that would be prudent for it. The only reason why you would not want the police to watch over everyone on a public street is if you believe the government would use this information to create a comprehensive file on your daily/monthly activities and use that against you illegally in the future. The possibility of this is remotely small next to other "invasions of privacy", and there is no expectation of privacy on Main Street, USA.

I would find it valid for arguments to be made about specific streets that should not be policed in this manner, but for heavily used streets full of mostly public businesses? Absolutely not.
7.14.2005 5:22pm
B. B. (mail):
We already have a good number of these cameras in Chicago and they are adding more. The ACLU has basically admitted that they have no way to challenge them in the courts. It's a little freaky to know that these things are around, but I haven't heard of abuses (yet) so until that starts becoming an issue I'll live with it, I suppose.

However, I've already read in the news (the Trib) that the cameras here are a little different than maybe some are in other areas, in that they are monitored and even remotely controlled by dispatchers. They can move the shooting direction of the camera as well as zoom in. In the article, one example was where a camera spotted an active drug dealer and they made recordings of several deals, while dispatching police to the scene to arrest the dealer. I doubt they could stop a terror attack though, given the person would blend in just carrying a bag around.
7.14.2005 5:44pm
42USC1983 (mail):
Somewhat related: A friend tried a case where the D was charged with capital murder. His defense was self-defense. Images from 7-11's CCTV showed that the "victim" was indeed the initial aggressor (and was ultimate shot with the gun he tried shooting the D with). After two hours of jury deliberations, the D was acquitted. So, CCTVs have advantages for defense lawyers, too.

Now, to Mr. Imhoff's point that "[CCTVs] don't do anything to assist the police to detect or stop crimes before they happen or while they are in progress."

I'd say the problem is, most emphatically, not with the TVs, but with the audience. You ever watch the wathers? They sit in the CCTV room looking bored as hell. Of course, that's when they're not doing crossword puzzles, playing grab-ass, or zoning out. So, perhaps CCTVs could prevent crimes if the people monitoring them would pay attention. How do we get them to pay attention?

In casinos, dealers rarely work more than 40-minutes at a go, since going longer causes them to lose track of what they're doing. In some places, a dealer goes 20 minutes on/ 20 minutes off; and a longer break after 4-hours of that rotation. Perhaps a similar system could be applied to the CCTV watchers.
7.14.2005 6:45pm
A.S.:
I'd say that 42USC1983 in on the right track, but the proper focus is not on Vegas DEALERS, but rather on how Vegas operates its own CCTV systems. I have no first hand knowledge, but my impression is that Vegas casinos employ massive amounts of CCTV to catch cheats. And those CCTV cameras are used to catch them during commission of the cheating, not to figure out the trail afterwards. So how do the watchers in Vegas casinos work to be able to catch people in the act? And can that system be expanded to an entire city like London or New York?
7.14.2005 9:25pm
42USC1983 (mail):
Good catch, A.S. I thought of that on my walk tonight, and was disturbed I missed that analogy.

Do you or others have any thoughts? One thought is this: Allocate more funds towards watchers, and fewer funds to the walkers/ patrol people. But have a special task force that can quickly investigate threats. You'd have the CCTV/task force combinations at the biggest threats. Maybe you'd have cameras in a large area, but based on intelligence, you'd not have them all running. Rather, you'd turn on the cameras in the area that, based on intel, might be under attack.
7.14.2005 9:58pm
David Cantrell (mail) (www):
Bill Harshaw wrote:

> How many cases of abuse of surveillance cameras have been confirmed
> in London and DC? I can't remember any, though that may just be me.

In the UK there have been *plenty* of cases of poorly-paid CCTV watchers using them to "follow" women around or to look down their cleavage as they walk underneath steerable cameras. There have been other cases of such people selling tapes to private investigators.
7.15.2005 7:08pm