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Editor's Blog and Industry Comments

British CCTV not solving as much crime as it should

20 July, 2009
A senior British policemen comments on the poor processes in place which are causing the justice system to fail to use surveillance systems to their best advantage
An officer from the CCTV unit of London's Metropolitan Police has spoken out on the use of camera surveillance in the country and how the system hasn't been set up as well as it should have been. Despite the 3.2 million cameras on Britain's streets, DCI Mick Neville suggested to the BBC that the processes for capturing and using those images to detect crime are poorly defined and that budgets had been spent on hardware rather than training and process development. His suggestion is now to stop buying cameras and start developing the human side of surveillance.

His words sound reasonable enough on the surface but the issue of the effective use of CCTV in the fight against crime goes significantly deeper than the quotes of a man-on-a-mission. Mr Neville does seem to have a mission to divert funds towards the process end of managing CCTV rather than hardware. He made almost exactly the same comments at a security conference early in 2008 but nobody who can influence such matters seems to be listening.

If we take a more holistic look at the problem, there are a number of factors to consider:

Using the system effectively

This is DCI Neville's main argument and it is a valid one. With over 3 million cameras in the UK, there's a lot of footage being taken which may have to be processed, stored, analysed, enhanced, prepared as evidence and presented in court. Most of the time, the vast majority of it is junk but for the system to be effective, any frame from any of those 3 million cameras running day and night might be the one you're looking for. A demand like that calls for well-developed repeatable processes and a technology infrastructure to handle it. Achieving such an aim requires a more consolidated approach to the way in which surveillance systems are deployed nationally. Existing systems have been installed without reference to standard methods or process considerations so instead of looking at one process, it could be hundreds.


Mr Neville's argument to stop spending money on cameras is ridiculous. Advances in surveillance technology are providing clearer images, new functions, better capabilities to use effective processes and efficiencies in image storage, networking, integration and analysis. There are huge installations across the UK which are using cameras and VHS recording equipment that dates back 20 years. The UK has a painfully slow adoption rate of IP video technology and people are still quoting bandwidth, storage and legacy integration as the main reasons for holding back despite the widespread availability of smarter cameras with edge analytics, H.264 codecs, distributed storage and warehouses full of analogue encoders.


The role that CCTV has played in solving very serious crimes during the last ten years has served as justification for the corresponding proliferation of public space surveillance during the same period. Despite this, the politicians are aware of the negative aspects in terms of privacy, something which the British public is particularly fond of. To soften the blow against the privacy lobby, a provision has been made in the Data Protection Act for CCTV Systems with corresponding guidelines and there is constant pressure on achieving a reduction in camera presence in public places.

Confusing statistics are often quoted in terms of crime detection rates versus number of cameras in certain districts both in inner cities and surrounding areas but they generally lack enough detail to be interpreted unambiguously. What does seem to be clear however is that CCTV acts as a deterrent to property crimes but seems to have little effect on public order offences.

Public perception

What is CCTV surveillance and how do the public perceive it? Perceptions are different depending on which side of the camera you're on. The police see it as a network of private and public sector installations with the primary aim of preventing and detecting crime. From the other side of the camera, you would be forgiven for believing that all the public sector technology investment goes into traffic control leaving crime prevention and detection to legacy systems.

There's a strong case to say that technology plays an important role in bonding the different factors together into a strategy that can define the future of public surveillance in the UK. Technology enables unified and effective processes to be established more simply, it also enables a reduction in cameras and a perception that money isn't only being spent on traffic management systems.
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