CCTV lessons from the UK

Estimates vary, but with roughly one camera installed per every 14 citizens, the United Kingdom is now widely regarded as the CCTV capital of the world. Yet, experience suggests that in some respects, simply copying what's accepted as our best practices can be the worst possible thing. If you're considering a wide-scale public deployment, consider the following:

Zoning laws can trip you up in court. It might surprise you to know that in the United Kingdom, many thousands of cameras have been commissioned on the outsides of buildings, in breach of little-known planning legislation--the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order of 1995, Schedule 2, Part 33--that limits the size, number and placement of allowable surveillance cameras. That being the case, many current installations are legally classed as unlawful, so in theory any recordings obtained from them may well be inadmissible in court.

It doesn't always pay to be discreet. Historically, CCTV systems, particularly larger Public Space and Town Centre schemes, have been installed primarily as a deterrent to crime. Whilst the theory held up for the first few years, in practice the wide-scale installation of discreet dome cameras is creating a fundamental failure in many system designs, which often do not adequately fulfill the requirements of their DISE assessment. DISE refers to the four essential functions of a CCTV system: Deterrence, Incident Monitoring, Site Management and Evidential Recording. A DISE assessment indicates the intended purpose of a system, with each of the four functions being assigned a percentage, which should guide the type of system selected and its installation.

Deterrence is often temporary. Recent U.K. government research has finally brought to the fore an operational problem long known to insiders: Using a technique like CCTV simply to deter criminal activity works at a fundamental level, but for only a relatively short period. Experience suggests that in order to ensure a system is working effectively long-term, the designer should ideally adopt a defined strategy, perhaps based on deterrence through detection, essentially the idea that CCTV should be designed not just to displace crime but to deter it and catch criminals.

The biggest problem with that in the United Kingdom, though, is that nobody is prepared or necessarily competent to provide the essential statistical analysis needed to ensure correct system design, meaning billions of pounds may have been spent on installing politically impressive systems that are operationally inefficient.

Technique trumps technology. The deterrence issue is part and parcel of the larger question of technology versus technique. In recent years, the CCTV industry has progressed toward the adoption of IP-based technology, although admittedly the uptake here in the United Kingdom has been slow, due to the large and established analogue equipment base. That said, whilst many end users now rush headlong into the wonderful world of digital, some still make basic mistakes in the way they apply technology to operational needs.

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