Saturday, 3 April 2010

It's very nice, but what's it for?

Banned left a comment on this post that set me thinking. And reminiscing.

My grandmother was a very practical woman. Well, both were really, they lived in an age where frippery and trinkets amounted to plaster ducks on the wall and fancy decorated teapots. Frippery and trinkets should be cheap and for the most part, are only there to show the neighbours that you once went somewhere and won something at the fair. Little models of Blackpool tower, things like that. I once had a platform ticket for Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychyndrobwllllantisiliogogogoch (I haven't checked the spelling and I'm not going to) which cost pennies but impressed certain geeky friends immensely.

[Okay, if you're in your twenties, you'll be thinking 'Groan, the old guy is wittering again' but trust me, when you hit fifty (two more days) all the things you see now will come back to you. There is no such thing as 'progressive'. It's all a circle and it's not that big a circle either.]

Those trivia were cheap. Irrelevancies should be cheap. When I bought my first ZX-81 I remember my grandmother's thoughts on it. "Very nice. But what's it for?" If you remember the ZX-81 you'll know that's a really tough question even if you had the astounding 16 kilobyte memory expansion. Really, it didn't do all that much and the tape-deck loading and saving was slow and dodgy. It was a toy, not much more use than a pocket calculator and in fact less useful than the calculators you can now buy for under a tenner, but it put you in the 'Geek' bracket very nicely.

It wasn't seriously cheap but it was 'affordable' cheap, priced low enough for a geeky toy.

The comment Banned left concerned CCTV. We don't think of that as a trivial thing. It's watching us everywhere. Nests of them adorn the lampposts and pedestrian crossings and all manner of places in any city centre. In some places the operators can shout out of them. Some of the Aberdeen ones can do that. Invasion of privacy arguments can be countered with 'it's a public place' and with 'it helps solve crime' but as Banned pointed out, the poor imaging ability of these cameras mean that most of them are no use at all in solving anything.

They can, in many cases, prove nothing more than that a roughly human-shaped thing did something to another roughly human-shaped thing. In the dark they aren't as good as that.

Another item from Banned's comment was this:

They had been told that if they had been a few yards up the road they might have been filmed by the KFC cctvs which are "much better than the council ones".

Why are the KFC ones so much better? Individual businesses only buy a few cameras. Councils buy hundreds. Individual businesses buy a few good quality cameras to protect their businesses. Councils have a camera budget and want a certain number of cameras. What the cameras can do, well, that's important to the businesses but not to the councils. What's important to the councils is the number of cameras.

Those cameras are, for the most part, the council equivalent of plaster ducks and models of Blackpool tower. They are no use at all in fighting crime. Sure, there exist such things as face recognition cameras and infrared cameras and zoom lenses but they are expensive. Buying a city's worth would be prohibitive even for Labour budgetary madness. Councils rely on the same things as do those GATSO speed camera boxes, which don't all have cameras in them. They rely on the idea that nobody knows which is a good one and which is a dummy.

So what are they for? The sensible approach would be to buy top quality cameras for areas where crime is rife and dummy camera boxes for medium to low crime areas as a deterrent. The cameras are everywhere, in multiple groupings on every post you can see. Their pointless fuzzy images are watched by pointless people doing pointless jobs. There are no dummy boxes, and very few actually useful cameras.

They are trivia and frippery. Street furniture. Very expensive fripperies. So what are they for?

The only possible use for such expensive rubbish is to make you think you are being watched all the time, wherever you go. If you were wearing a latex mask, very few of those cameras could tell. They aren't there to stop crime. They are there to make sure you behave yourself.

I am sure they started out with the best of intentions. Just as those often-empty GATSO boxes were once intended to deter speeding rather than generate revenue, the useless CCTV cameras were once intended to deter crime. They did not. In fact, now that so many criminals have done just as they please in camera-covered areas and suffered no consequences, the cameras have been proven to be useless and the operators know it. They train them on bedroom windows and shout 'Move along' at people waiting for a bus because they know nothing important will ever interfere with their jobs.

The cameras will improve with time but the uptake of improved cameras will be slow. Councils don't need them now. They have us all under control with the junk cameras they already run. Camera evidence is immaterial when a council officer's word is already worth twice that of a council taxpayer's. Why would they upgrade those cameras? They serve their purpose.

They are trinkets. Plaster ducks on the lampposts in the street. Once billed as a deterrent to crime, they are now ostentatiously placed, as those neighbours once placed their Benidorm ashtrays, to impress and nothing more.

CCTV is there to impress upon us the superiority of those in charge. That is what it is for.


Mitch said...

I had the thought that kids wearing hoodies is a social evolution in response to CCTV everywhere.
A threat in the environment produces a response.

g1lgam3sh said...

Nailed again LI

1327 said...

I live in a fair sized city with an expensive CCTV system with its own control room and council wardens in addition to the PCSO's and plod. Yet in the 3 occasions I witnessed and reported crimes last year (2 robberies and an assault) I was told that the CCTV was down that day by the Police who attended. Since then I usually have a look at the cameras when I pass them and they are always in a "slumped" type position looking at the ground so I have a nasty feeling the things never work.

We also have a brightly coloured Police van with a sign announcing it is a portable CCTV camera unit with a tall mast on its roof which has a camera on it. That parks up the same spot at 8am every morning 2 PCSO's get out and leave it unmanned until 5pm when they collect it again !

Dave H said...

If a mob brazenly stabs a youth to death in broad daylight in one of London's busiest and (presumably) most camera-encrusted underground stations, then the deterrence effect of CCTV against certain kinds of violent crime is evidently sod all.

Local shopkeepers reported these gangs had been running amok for weeks.

Mark Wadsworth said...

It's all a circle and it's not that big a circle either.

Nice turn of phrase!

microdave said...

"The cameras will improve with time"

They already have. High Resolution cameras are available now, but they cost some £2-3K, as against a few £hundred for the "useless" ones on every street corner. Some are publicly accessible on the web. A favourite of mine is in the Cayman Islands, which (subject to other users) you can "Grab" for a minute and control as you wish. At the moment there's a cruise ship in the harbour, or you can zoom in on the clock face and confirm the time. It's VERY impressive! It needs Java on your PC to operate. Find it here:

Eclipse said...

Yup, until High res cams areput up in cities, they're no use to everyone.

As for KFCs cams, they need to be high res, as they need to capture reg plates and drivers - they now charge 'penalties' for overstaying in their car parks.

We got one just over a year ago. Just ignore their invoices, as that's all they are. they have no legal basis to collect money from you. the parking is free, so no loss, so no legal case.

Leg-iron said...

Microdave - yes, webcams are far more effective than CCTV and they are accessible to everyone all the time. CCTV relies on one operator staying awake. So for security, webcams are far superior. However, the government can't control all the webcams (yet) and if they don't control it, they don't like it.

Leg-iron said...

Petrol stations and drive-through food stops have to catch number plates, for those who drive off without paying.

Using them to try for a bit of extra income is bound to happen.

Gareth said...

Just come to this via DK's libertarian round up.

"They are trivia and frippery. Street furniture. Very expensive fripperies. So what are they for?

The only possible use for such expensive rubbish is to make you think you are being watched all the time, wherever you go. If you were wearing a latex mask, very few of those cameras could tell. They aren't there to stop crime. They are there to make sure you behave yourself."

You have discounted incompetence and mendacity.

Camera sellers say 'CCTV is great and (may) help the fight against crime'.

Politicians say 'CCTV is great and will help the fight against crime'.

As the case highlighted by Banned shows, businesses have a commercial interest in getting effective kit. Police and councils just want to max out their budgets.

Anecdotally from my own town the Police have claimed the footage is too crap to be much use. They make this claim whenever they are asked about it *after* a crime has occurred yet are not asking for upgrades to the cameras. The cameras are a sop and an excuse for a much inflated budget - like choppers and undercover sports cars. These are things for the Police to use as a shield for their own failings - 'crime rates would fall if only you throw more money at us' type argument. However did the Police manage before these luxuries?

For evidential purposes unless you have an active operator tracking a suspect and zooming in on their face (say, like they do at football riots and suchlike) it shows a coloured or blacknwhite smudge. In most circumstances I would guess the point is to bounce suspects into confessing rather than actually proving undeniably that it was them doing whatever, and to reassure the public. The reassurance comes from believing the cameras have a person at the other end watching yet for the vast majority of the time they provide nothing more than hindsight and a blurred view at that.

Sargon the Demented said...

Hm, having done some work recently in a selection of police stations in Norn Iron (several in Belfast, but also in <Londond|D>erry, Antrim, and some others), I have to say the quality of their CCTV feeds are actually very good. They also maintained at least one person (but usually one per camera) constantly looking the place over, zooming in on anything that caught their eye.

If anything, it seemed to me that the lack of cameras was more of a hindrence (in terms of observing) than the quality.

Of course, that's NI, where I expect they've been using CCTV for longer than most. Dunno if NI have hi-res cameras in general?

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