Lights, Cameras, Surveillance!

Last week I wrote, briefly, about calls from local merchants (as reported in the Cape Breton Post) for more surveillance cameras in downtown Sydney, noting that “literally every merchant interviewed” already had CCTV cameras on their premises and they didn’t prevent any of the incidents described.

A CCTV cameraThis week, I thought I’d follow up on the question of CCTV cameras—beginning with what the United Kingdom, one of the most surveilled states in the Western world, has learned about their effectiveness—before expanding the discussion to surveillance in general.

With a population of about 68 million, the UK has one CCTV camera for every 11 people. The vast majority of these are commercially owned, although over the years the government has provided millions of pounds to local councils to purchase and install their own systems.

According to a 2010 briefing note from the British House of Commons Library, CCTV cameras are supposed to combat crime by deterring potential offenders and by making potential victims aware of the risks they face and causing them to alter their behavior “accordingly.” The cameras, of course, are also supposed to be used for catching offenders after a crime has been committed.

The briefing note cites a 2008 publication by something called the Campbell Collaboration (no connection), an “international research network” that examined research from around the world in an attempt to “assess the impact of CCTV on crime.” The synopsis of the study states:

Closed circuit television (CCTV) surveillance cameras serve many functions and are used in both public and private settings. The prevention of personal and property crime is among the primary objectives in public space, which is the main focus of this review…Results of this review indicate that CCTV has a modest but significant desirable effect on crime, is most effective in reducing crime in car parks, is most effective when targeted at vehicle crimes (largely a function of the successful car park schemes), and is more effective in reducing crime in the United Kingdom than in other countries.

The reason the cameras are more effective in reducing crime in the UK is also down to their effectiveness in parking lots, but as a Swedish study from 2007 noted, the reduction in such crimes may also be due to “other interventions such as improved lighting, fencing, and security personnel.” Based on its research, the Campbell Collaboration recommended future CCTV schemes be narrower and more targeted than simply mounting them on poles in every town square.

But even earlier, a 2005 study for the British Home office had warned:

The belief that CCTV alone can counter complex social problems is unrealistic in the extreme. At best CCTV can work alongside other measures to generate some changes, but it is no easy panacea, and there is a lot still to be learnt about how to use it to best effect.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to describe the roots of the incidents cited by downtown Sydney merchants as “complex social problems.” The Post article avoids coming right out and saying it, but what merchants are complaining about is the increased presence of homeless, addicted and/or mentally ill people in our downtown. Their solution–increased surveillance, whether by CCTV camera or a more robust police presence—not only fails to tackle the roots of the problem, it rides roughshod over everyone’s rights in the process.


Facial recognition

Consider, again, the UK.

All those warnings about the limited effectiveness of surveillance cameras don’t seem to have resulted in any major changes in their use. In fact, British police have taken things a step further and are now using the cameras in tandem with live facial recognition technology—breaking ethical standards and human rights laws in the process, according to a 2022 study from the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy, at the University of Cambridge.

South Wales Police, who have been successfully challenged for their use of facial recognition cameras in court, continue to use the technology—just last week they deployed it in Cardiff’s city center to scan thousands of fans heading to a Beyoncé concert in hopes of identifying “wanted individuals.” The Metropolitan Police in London used the technology to surveil the crowds at the Coronation, with a focus on protestors.

And it’s not just the cops—the Guardian reported in July 2022 that shoppers at a grocery store chain in southern England were being surveilled by facial recognition cameras.

Facial recognition technology demonstration.

Adam Harvey leads a demonstration on the functionality of facial recognition softwares and informs the audience of methods to help remain anonymous. This picture was taken during the second “Web We Want Festival,” 2014. (Photo by Pete Woodhead, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

And it’s not just the UK—Canada’s Civil Liberties Association says Canadian Tire “is known to use” facial recognition technology in 15% of its stores, citing this story of a First Nations man in Manitoba flagged for a theft he says he did not commit.

In 2021, then-privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien found that the RCMP had broken the law with its use of facial recognition technology from Clearview AI, a US company that had:

…created a databank of more than three billion images scraped from internet websites without users’ consent.

In 2022, Therrien and his provincial and territorial counterparts called on the federal government to limit how law enforcement can use facial recognition technology, a sentiment that had been expressed to the CBC by David Fraser, a privacy lawyer with McInnes Cooper in Halifax, back in 2020:

I think legislators and policy-makers need to turn their minds to this. We need to have this discussion, and the police need to be dragged into that discussion, out of the shadows where they’re making decisions about currently deploying this sort of technology.

In October 2022, the federal  standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics released a report on facial recognition technology and AI which was welcomed by Canada’s new privacy commissioner, Philippe Dufresne, who hoped to see:

…Parliament taking the next steps in its review of Bill C-27, which would update federal private-sector privacy legislation, and which, I hope, will be followed by a modernization of the public sector Privacy Act in the near future.

Bill C-27 passed second reading on April 24 and is now in committee and clearly deserves more consideration than I have time to give it this week, but that’s where we’re going to have to leave it for now.

But the point is that in 2023, the leap from CCTV cameras to facial recognition technology is not a very big one and I think we need to be conscious of that.


Tools of the trade

As I was finishing this piece, I ran across a tweet that so neatly encompassed everything I wanted to say that I think I’ll just reproduce it here.

It came from Matthew Guariglia, an American historian whose area of expertise is “U.S. state power, policing, surveillance, information, technology, race & ethnicity.” Writing about facial recognition technology in 2020, at which point seven US cities had banned its use by government, Guariglia noted that:

Part of the opposition stems from the fact that many don’t want police to have the ability to track movement around a city or learn the identities of protesters. But it’s also related to people’s unwillingness to be regarded with perpetual suspicion.

Yesterday, Guariglia tweeted in response to a news report that city officials in San Francisco were “developing a pilot program that could allow for the enforcement of public intoxication laws.”

The line that caught Guariglia’s eye was this:

We need every tool at our disposal,” said the city’s emergency department.

This was his response:



Weird, indeed.