THE MAGAZINE

CCTV: Panacea or Problem

By John Strauchs, CPP

Closed-circuit television (CCTV) is the most vibrant color on the security engineer’s and integrator’s palette, but it can also be the most wasteful.  It all hinges on whether you understand its limitations.  I’ve designed, specified, or surveyed hundred’s of CCTV systems and, in my opinion, from 25% to 50% of video cameras represent wasted money, depending on the application. In some cases, there are serious hidden legal liabilities.

CCTV sales exploded after 9-11.  No one has definitive numbers and industry-generated estimates vary wildly, but annual revenues from CCTV sales are likely to range from $1.3 to $2.4 billion.

According to Security Sales & Integration Annual Installation Business Report (2006), CCTV installations experienced the second highest increase ever recorded.  (The highest was in 2003, a little more than a year after 9-11.)  Moreover, companies reported average gross profit margins of 39%. That’s pretty good.

Schools are not the largest market by any means, but they are the most troubling. There is a virtual pandemic of schools installing video cameras willy-nilly in the aftermath of Columbine and Virginia Tech. The lay public, unfortunately, doesn’t understand the technology and ignorantly believes that the simple act of installing cameras stops crime.  Cash-starved high schools, in particular, may be choosing video surveillance over higher teacher pay, text books, or afterschool programs for students.  CCTV is a superb investigative tool after something terrible occurs, but then again, the identification of the shooters in the recent incidents at schools didn’t require video to identify the perpetrators.  With very few exceptions, it is almost a useless tool to prevent serious crimes in most schools because they rarely—if ever—have the staff to effectively monitor the cameras. Too often, the monitors are tucked beneath the counter at the main reception desk.

I recall a marketing interview I had with a major New England university.  I told their chief of security and the consultant selection committee that they were planning to buy many more cameras than they needed. I didn’t get that job. It’s not what he wanted to hear.

Crime Prevention Pitfalls

Video is ineffectual because it only has crime prevention value under two circumstances: a human continuously monitors it and can call on an almost instantaneous response when a crime occurs.  Few organizations (save the CIA and similar high-security facilities) have the resources to effectively implement these two prerequisites. 

In addition to the potentially exorbitant costs of buying and installing a full coverage video system, the consequent life-cycle costs (labor, repair, and maintenance costs) are massive over time if the video system is properly managed. The alertness of security console operators peaks in 20 minutes, according to many studies.  It is necessary to change monitoring duties every two hours for optimal surveillance—hence, the very high labor costs.  Moreover, a human can’t efficiently and reliably watch more than 9 to 12 monitors—let alone the dozens of monitors that can be found at some security monitoring centers. There is a paradox at play. CCTV is potentially the most valuable security resource as well as the most misused and wasteful.  It is the familiar story of having too much of a good thing. 

Getting back to cost, as a rule of thumb, each indoor camera averages $1500 (as a complete, installed cost, including power, wire, and conduit) and each outdoor camera, $3500.  If all the bells and whistles are added, per camera costs for outdoor, day/night units can easily approach $9,800 per position and up to $60,000 for very exotic capabilities and for very difficult locations. For a very large school, university, hospital, shopping mall, parking garage, or office building, the final costs for complete video systems can range from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. Sometimes these expenditures are like flushing money down a toilet.

To put what I have been saying into a useful context, a very short tutorial is called for.  CCTV serves three primary functions: perform surveillance; support post-incident investigations, including identification; and automate a function, such as at remotely controlled doors or vehicle entrances. It has momentous value for crime investigation.  Most organizations, however, purchase video systems with the generally unrealistic expectations that it will prevent crime. Often, they have little understanding of security console operations or ergonomics.

There are some interesting and growing secondary applications that are mostly benign.  The increasing popularity of “nanny cams” is well known. The use of CCTV to catch red light runners at busy intersections, to read license plates at tollbooths and airport parking garages, and to catch speeders is also common now.  Similarly, video cameras can reduce bad behavior on school buses. Cameras also work well for law enforcement sting operations. Police park a “bait” automobile in an area known for high incidents of car theft and car-jackings.  When the miscreant enters the vehicle, the police can remotely lock the doors and record the event on video. But as valuable as these various uses are, these kinds of applications rarely involve thwarting serious crimes. Moreover, they document a crime; they don’t prevent it.

The use of CCTV in conjunction with very sophisticated facial recognition software is an interesting case study.  Every city that has installed these extremely expensive systems, such as Tampa and Virginia Beach, eventually shut them down.  Facial recognition isn’t ready for prime time yet. This new technology fits the same pattern: the consumer does not understand the limitations of unfamiliar technology.

CCTV in Public Places

The installation of massive video nets in public spaces is another mounting trend, especially in light of the remarkable success the British had on several occasions in identifying and then tracking suspected terrorists after an attack.  Bear in mind that the United Kingdom has 4.2 million CCTV cameras in place.  There is a camera for every 14 people and an average Londoner is seen on camera 300 times each day.  The United States isn’t even close to that kind of surveillance saturation on a per capita basis, but we’re catching up fast. City after city is embarking on public video surveillance programs. By some accounts, downtown Manhattan already has 4,200 public and private sector video cameras. The NYPD would like to install 3,000 new cameras by the end of 2008. Police departments in Baltimore, Hollywood, Houston, Memphis, Newark, San Diego, Tampa, Virginia Beach, Washington, D.C., and in many other cities are installing video cameras and connecting to feeds from private sector CCTV systems. This is a great idea if the objective is to support post-incident investigations. Whether these systems contribute to crime reduction is still controversial—and in my view, dubious.

With the recent Federal trend toward design-build contracts, government bodies at all levels typically uses companies that sell and install video systems to determine how much CCTV they need, rather than impartial security engineers and consultants. It’s not exactly a surprise that these companies want to sell and install as many CCTV systems as they possibly can. Moreover, this is a partial explanation of the exponential growth of citywide video systems. Yet another reason for this growth is the ever-mounting pressure from the Department of Homeland Security for more and more video. Bear in mind that the British didn’t prevent any of their terrorist attacks as a result of video surveillance.  Could it happen in the future? Sure, even a blind hog can find an acorn now and then.

The effectiveness of CCTV in public spaces to reduce crime is counterintuitive and controversial. It is not at all clear that crime rates are reduced. Some criminologists think that crime is only displaced by video systems.  When studies do claim CCTV does reduce crime, the reduction is usually marginal.

Comments

I know of one state in

I know of one state in Australia who has entire state covered with CCTV security cameras. When you first cross the board the sense is there is little or no law enforcement, do not be fooled. They are monitored by CCTV.

 

Regards,

Stan

cctv cameras

curious logic

You stated:
"If someone is assaulted in spite of the cameras, someone at that company should not only pay the future victims handsomely; they should probably go to jail."

Your position is that camera surveillance DOES NOT prevent crime. I've always viewed cameras as forensic tools, not as preventive measure.

So, why would installing a non-functioning forensic tool be considered a crime?

That's like saying...I didn't put a sign-in log at the front desk, so any assaults in the facility make me a criminal.

If we extend your argument, the employer could install wires, a monitor, and possibly a VCR. Then he/she could watch the assault over and over again, and feel OK about it?

No logic there. You could argue that the employer is guilty of wasting money on surveillance equipment INSTEAD OF spending money on security measures. If the employer spent no money at all, there would not be the implied acknowledgment of dangerous equipment in the parking lot.

If I put a fake alarm company sign on my front lawn, then my house was burglarized, would my guests be justified in suing me because I didn't really have an alarm system installed? Same argument. Alarm systems don't stop B&E. They just displace them down the block to a quieter house.

In order to CYA, perhaps everyone should install a sign saying, "No protection from anything or anyone. Visitors and trespassers hold no expectations." That would absolve property owners and facility managers from any guilt...right?

 

The Magazine — Past Issues

 




Beyond Print

SM Online

See all the latest links and resources that supplement the current issue of Security Management magazine.