New Orleans May Dump Security Cameras

October 31, 2010

According to a report at the site, by Davis Hammer of The Times-Picayune, Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans has proposed discontinuing the city’s use of its security camera network.  The cameras began to be installed in 2003, as a response to the city’s high crime rate.  However, despite the expenditure of several million dollars, a recent report by the city’s inspector general said that only 41 out of the 211 installed cameras were actually working.  And their overall contribution to reducing crime has not been impressive, although it has been in part appropriately focused.

In seven years, New Orleans’ crime camera program has yielded six indictments: three for crimes caught on video and three for bribes and kickbacks a vendor is accused of paying a former city official to sell the cameras to City Hall.

Quite apart from the apparent venality involved in this project, which is the subject of a 63-count indictment obtained by the US Attorney, there has always been, to my mind, a significant question of whether these wide-scale security camera projects actually do much to improve security.

There are some specific situations in which security cameras can be useful.  Typically they involve a somehow limited physical environment, where the camera coverage and available lighting can be controlled.  Cameras at ATMs, for example, can be valuable, because the user has to be fairly close to the machine to use it, and the machine needs to be well-lighted, anyway.  Similarly, cameras and lighting in parking garages have helped reduce  crime; in that environment, legitimate pedestrian traffic is light, so picking out individuals is usually fairly easy.

In some places, however, widespread installation of cameras in all sorts of public places has been the norm.  (London is probably the poster child for this approach, with on the order of half a million cameras installed.)   Here, it is much less clear that the benefits are commensurate with even the monetary cost, not to mention the intangible costs of reduced personal privacy.  As Bruce Schneier points out in an essay on the issue at CNN, there is also a troubling history of misuse of these camera networks by the police and other authorities.    The benefits are open to considerable question.  With respect to preventing crime, the possibilities are limited, since it is not possible to have someone watching the video from each camera all the time.  A policeman’s time would be better spent actually watching the area in person, since he need not have fixed blind spots and predictable patterns of coverage.

Video recorded from cameras can sometimes be helpful in identifying criminals after a crime has been committed, but even there, they are far from infallible.   Schneier cites the example of the January assassination of  Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai.  The obviously professional team that carried out the hit was captured on video by security cameras.

Team members walk through the airport, check into and out of hotels, get into and out of taxis. They make no effort to hide themselves from the cameras, sometimes seeming to stare directly into them. They obviously don’t care that they’re being recorded, and — in fact — the cameras didn’t prevent the assassination, nor as far as we know have they helped as yet in identifying the killers.

Widespread installation of security cameras, like many other measures introduced since 9/11,. fall into the category that Schneier calls security theater.  They tend to be produced by a process along the lines of, “This is terrible.  We must do something.  X is something; therefore we must do X.”  They may make us feel better, temporarily; but, in addition to being a waste of time and money, they may also have the effect of damaging those aspects of our society that make it worth defending in the first place.

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