An increasing number of American cities and towns are investing millions of taxpayer dollars in surveillance camera systems. But few are closely examining the costs and benefits of those investments, or creating mechanisms for measuring those costs and benefits over time. There is extensive academic literature on the subject -- studies carried out over many years -- and that research demonstrates that video surveillance has no statistically significant effect on crime rates. Several studies on video surveillance have been conducted in the UK, where surveillance cameras are pervasive. The two main meta-analyses conducted for the British Home Office (equivalent to the US departments of Justice and Homeland Security) show that video surveillance has no impact on crime whatsoever. If it did, then there would be little crime in London, a city estimated to have about 500,000 cameras.
Video surveillance systems are more diffuse and less centralized in the United States, and fewer independent studies of their efficacy exist. However, preliminary studies of cameras in California show similar results to studies conducted in the UK: little to no effect in reducing crime.
Studies have shown that cameras are less useful than adding more police officers to neighborhoods, improving lighting conditions in parking lots, or holding meetings among officers and citizens to increase public education about how individuals can protect themselves. It is true that footage from video surveillance cameras has been useful for post-crime investigation in some cases. But note that the cameras' usefulness comes after the crime has already been committed -- and that the funds used for that relatively rare benefit could do more to reduce crime if used more efficiently.
Camera surveillance systems also inevitably raise issues of racial profiling and voyeurism. Everyone has heard of the camera operators who zoom in upon women's breasts or police officers who used infrared video surveillance equipment to watch a couple engaged in romantic activity.
The bottom line is: Are cameras worth the cost in terms of money and civil liberties? Cities and states are still wasting limited security budget dollars on camera surveillance systems. In the last five years, the US Department of Homeland Security had handed out about $300 million in grants for camera surveillance systems. These funds could have gone toward hiring more experienced police officers, improving equipment for first-responders so that they can be ready to help in cases of emergency or other such security needs.
And consider the civil liberty costs of video surveillance systems. Video surveillance technology will only grow more sophisticated. There will come a day when the cameras will be routinely linked with other technologies in attempt to instantly identify you and me via face recognition, RFIDs, or other technologies. Do we want a society where an innocent individual can't walk down the street without being considered a potential criminal? Do we want a society where people are comfortable with constant surveillance?
On this site you'll be able to find general news stories, information on surveillance hotspots, resources and tools about video surveillance, and ways in which you can take action.
Find out more from the ACLU's Four Problems with Public Video Surveillence.