CCTV, Surveillance and privacy – reports from Ireland and the UK

The Centre for Criminal Justice and Human Rights was pleased to welcome His Honour Judge Patrick J. Moran to the launch last week of CCTV as a Crime Prevention Strategy: A Review of the Literature by Dorothy Appelbe. The event took place on the 28th January 2009.

The report is the culmination of research funded by Allianz Ireland, Cork Chamber of Commerce and the Faculty of Law, University College, Cork.

CCTV is one of the most renowned weapons in the fight against crime. In Britain, which is said to be the most surveilled society, public area CCTV began its career as a crime prevention tactic in the 1970s. Since then, Britain has seen a massive proliferation of CCTV. The use of CCTV in the investigation such high profile cases as the abduction and killing of Jamie Bulger, the Admiral Duncan nail-bombing and the London bombings has undoubtedly fuelled the rapid spread of public area CCTV coverage.

By comparison, public area CCTV only really arrived in Ireland in the 1990s. While An Garda Síochána had been the driving force behind the roll-out of CCTV here, the institution of the Community-Based CCTV Scheme in June, 2005 has injected increased fervour into the expansion of CCTV surveillance in Ireland. The availability of various levels of funding to assist in the installation of CCTV has meant communities such as Blackpool in Cork, Clonmel and Tallaght have been able to introduce CCTV systems with a view to reducing the risk of anti-social and criminal activity.

The rationale behind the use of CCTV as a crime prevention strategy is that its presence increases the chances of detection and apprehension thereby deterring would-be offenders. It has also proven useful in the context of police resource allocation and investigation. Furthermore, there is the school of thought that CCTV promotes feelings of security and safety and consequently urban renewal in areas where it is deployed.

There are however a number of concerns surrounding the use of CCTV. While it may be said to deter would-be offenders, there is an argument that the presence of CCTV merely displaces offending rather than actually preventing it. Another criticism is that CCTV is instrumental in the perpetuation of a ‘fortress mentality’, whereby communities baton down the hatches in the face of non-conformity and difference. These aside, the most recognised concerns surrounding CCTV are its impact on privacy and the potential for abuse.

The report documents all of these issues and more and it examines the emergence of CCTV as a crime prevention strategy and the effectiveness it displays in this role.

A week after the launch of the report here in Ireland it is interesting to note that in the UK the House of Lords constitution committee has now published a report entitled Surveillance: Citizens and the State. The report confirms the fact that Britain has established one of the most extensive and technologically advanced surveillance systems in the world on the basis of claims about crime, terrorism and administrative efficiency. The country has an estimated 4m cameras and a national DNA database, with more than 7% of the population already logged compared with 0.5% in the America.

The peers fear that the resultant “surveillance society” risks undermining fundamental rights such as the right to privacy. The report concludes that privacy is an “essential prerequisite to the exercise of individual freedom” and the growing use of surveillance and data collection needs to be regulated by executive and legislative restraint at all times.

In recent years, up to 78% of the crime prevention budget having been spent on CCTV in recent years yet the report notes that there is a lack of clear understanding as to how beneficial the reliance on CCTV is in actually preventing crime. It therefore recommends the UK government undertakes an independent appraisal of research into its use. It also recommends new laws to regulate the use of CCTV in the public and private sectors and the development of “codes of practice that are legally binding on all CCTV schemes, and a system of complaints and remedies”.

The report makes more than 40 recommendations to protect individual privacy, including the deletion of all profiles from the national DNA database except for those of convicted criminals.
Clearly, as we in Ireland contemplate the move towards an increased use in CCTV and other surveillance methods, we are well placed to make sure we learn from the experience of the UK and other countries where surveillance has already become a significant part of strategies for ensuring public safety or detecting crime. Maintaining the correct balance between these issues and the right to privacy is essential to ensuring a healthy democracy and a sense of trust between citizens and the state.