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By: Ian Kerr

July 20, 2005

seems that when some innocents die all we can offer them is a page in a some magazine. too many cameras and not enough food 'cause this is what we've seen

sting, driven to tears

in a recent post, marc rotenberg asked us to consider the lessons we might draw from the terrible tragedy in london. as he put it, “the most surveilled city in the world was also the site of one of the most significant terrorist attacks that ever occurred.” and so marc asks, “is surveillance the solution?”

unfortunately, i fear that most canadians will not recognize this as a rhetorical question.

as i tap away on my keyboard, law enforcement officers in london are analysing more than 6,000 closed circuit television (cctv) tapes from a city that has more than a half million cameras, while UK policy wonks arm wrestle over which is a better expenditure: spending piles of ca$h on scanners that can allow operators to “see” through clothing, or piloting facial recognition technologies that use cctv to make realtime matches between faces-in-the-crowd and mugshots of known suspects (potential IQ test – name the antonym for “known suspect”).

public safety is an important social goal, as is emergency preparedness. that said, i must confess, i have never been clear on the relationship between cameras and public safety.

we are about to hear more and more about the crucial role that cctv plays in apprehending suspected terrorists.

but it is important to remember the reason those cameras where installed in the first place. it wasn’t to apprehend bombers. as one route director for the tube described the raison d’être not too long ago, "[w]e are determined to get rid of graffiti and delays caused by vandalism."

well … unless those camera’s have automated spray guns filled with paint remover, i take it the point of the cameras was to provide a kind of placebo against petty crime; to provide a deterrent to the misguided and a corollary perception of safety to the public. as marc’s rhetorical question rightly implies, the cameras failed to achieve the former, providing instead a false sense of the latter.

in spite of the counterfactual that the london tragedy provides, i am afraid that we are about to see (not to mention pay for) more and more cameras -- and not just in the UK. along with those purchases will be a call for new laws extending the length of time that video capture can be stored. (in fact, there will be a general push for a mandatory data retention of all sorts of digital records in the public and private sectors)

it has been reported that
the toronto transit commission is already planning to install more surveillance cameras. and montreal plans to add another 1000 to its subway.

i have little doubt that canada’s minister of public safety and emergency preparedness isn't scratching her head, thinking about doing the same sort of thing.

last year i lived in spain and was traveling through madrid’s train station the week it was bombed. i gather that they have since installed some 5000 cameras. (potential IQ test #2: how many trained experts does it take to monitor 5000 camera monitors?)

cameras don’t stop crime. if they make some people feel safe – that seems to be the goal – then i recommend instead my favorite comfort food: pizza. pizza is a much better crime deterrent than cameras. studies have shown that feeding pizza to law enforcement agents results in better than average on-the-job performance than a diet of cameras alone.

if you’re thinking that i am being unfair because deterrence is not the reason for installing the cameras (ie, we do it to catch people who have committed crimes), then we should be asking ourselves, yet again, what price we are willing to pay to “smoke ‘em outta their holes.”?

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