I came across an interesting term recently in an article by Albert Fox Cahn, published on wired.com, when he talked about ‘surveillance solutionism’. Broadly, the article referred to the idea that in respect of any potential crime problem, one throws surveillance cameras at it as a solution, often whether appropriate or not.
The concept of surveillance solutionism has been used more broadly in the context of other types of surveillance, including the monitoring of people using technology, apps and social media, as well as increasing AI-enabled technology. I’ve seen the term used previously in the context of state intelligence by Christophe Prince in a book chapter called ‘On Denoting and Concealing in Surveillance Law’ in 2021, but there have been few mentions of it until Cahn’s article became highlighted and popularised.
Mentions of surveillance solutionism in nearly all cases reflect concerns over privacy, human rights protections and unwarranted surveillance. Cahn’s points included a concern that an increasing culture is developing, including in city, state and government institutions, of using surveillance cameras without regard to where they are needed. Specifically, he refers to comments by New York governor, Kathy Hochul, at a news conference on 20 September 2022 which included “You think Big Brother’s watching you on the subways? … You’re absolutely right”, when she was announcing a new state programme to pay for two cameras in each of the city’s more than 6400 subway cars.
In expressing his concerns about privacy, Cahn noted, “At the start of the post-9/11 surveillance age, Big Brother was a criticism; now it’s a selling point. It’s moments like these, when language fundamentally changes, that we can recognise how surveillance’s slippery slope has already taken us over a constitutional cliff.”
Does it actually work?
Human rights and privacy have been issues since the start of CCTV implementation, but whether you agree they may have been abused or rather that there should be more CCTV to protect people against crime, Cahn raises another concern that does affect us all, and the security industry as a whole. He questions whether cameras actually work and goes on to comment: “In recent years, the transit agency has spent tens of millions of dollars on cameras for every subway entrance. But when a deranged man opened fire on a packed subway car in April, the cameras didn’t work. In the aftermath, as the MTA and NYPD tried to throw each other under the bus for the failure, neither agency was willing to question their premise that the cameras were needed in the first place.”
There are multiple stories one can read where crimes have been committed and cameras were not working, or staff were not paying attention. This includes one where a Bolt driver was bludgeoned to death by a mob in Parkwood, with a reporter from the Weekend Argus in Cape Town writing one person’s account: “Apparently, the woman on duty in the GP camera control room, behind the civic centre, saw the attack commence, then buggered off to do her errands at the bank,” said the member. “It is unacceptable that this happened and this is not the first time someone dies and the cameras fail to pick it up due to someone not paying attention.”
I have no doubt that CCTV systems that are installed based on the appropriate operational requirements and correctly specified – staffed appropriately in a control room designed and managed effectively, with people having the right skills and following the correct procedures, including regular system checks – can reduce crime.
The remarkable turnaround I was involved in when Cape Town first installed cameras in 2000, and achieved an 80% reduction in crime in the first year, is testament to this. The initial Cape Town performance was based on a clearly articulated and implemented surveillance strategy, a strong focus on the control room and staff, support from a number of motivated and competent, prominent people in the industry, and a desire to get the right results.
In a range of societies around the world, however, there is a huge number of examples of cameras installed without any consideration on appropriateness or placement, no consideration on how they will be monitored effectively (if at all), poorly selected and trained staff, and inadequately managed operations within the control room. Even where cameras are only installed for reviewing information after the event, the quality of views is often low.
The human factor is critical in any CCTV operation and cameras are only as good at the people who use them, and the managers who drive and ensure effective operation of the systems. Doing this consistently over time, to a high standard, is also a challenge that needs to be sustained.
Effective management not magic
A strategic focus, and an integrated and active executive and management approach to operations, are key elements in any successful crime protection approach, including CCTV. We use technological solutions to get results, but those solutions must work and they need to be applied effectively by people who are involved with them.
It sounds so reasonable but is so often missing in those providing security solutions, from the operators’ level through to the executives who sign off on spending for the systems.
In another article by Cahn on the fastcompany.com site in the aftermath of the Uvalde school shooting tragedy, he highlights the dangers of accepting technology at face value, or “the increasingly insistent claims that technology can magically keep our kids safe. It won’t,” he states.
He goes on to note, “The Uvalde school district had doubled security spending in the years leading up to the attack … there were also digital measures, including social-media-surveillance software from software firm Social Sentinel, Raptor Technologies’ visitor management software, metal detectors, cameras, threat-assessment teams,and reporting programs. Yet none of that worked against an 18-year-old with an AR-15-style rifle … Uvalde’s metal detectors, cameras and social-media monitoring didn’t save anyone on 24 May, and yet the vendors who sold those systems will likely make more money than ever this year.”
We can’t disregard the fact that many schools and other organisations in the US, as well as all over the world, are using security technologies effectively and that they are often a critical factor in stopping tragic events or security threats at a number of levels. Despite Cahn’s comments, the technological developments and big data are enabling us to create new levels of protection for people, organisations and infrastructure.
Yet his warnings reflect concerns about a ‘technosolutionism’ culture where, in response to fancy sales techniques and a dazzling array of promotions, we buy things that don’t suit us, don’t work, don’t integrate with our current systems or don’t fit the capacity we currently have. As users and managers of security technology, we need to think about comprehensive, workable solutions, and how each component assists in service delivery and the outcomes we want. Also, how these can be managed and operated in such a way that they produce results, while still recognising the interests of people and communities.
Cheap and effective don’t work together
I still frequently come across cases where companies have CCTV systems but the human capacity to use it effectively is almost non-existent. More recently, I have been privileged to work with some companies who are using technologies and intelligence data in incredibly innovative ways to protect their enterprises and employees, including from threats from well-organised and resourced crime syndicates. The use of these technologies as part of integrated strategies is simply awesome and I wouldn’t have believed them possible a few years ago, as are their results in detecting threats and responding to these in as proactive a manner as possible.
The security management involved in these organisations is taking a well-considered, integrated approach to using technology that is very different to the concerns that are being voiced around surveillance solutionism. Cahn’s comments, though, remind us that as an industry, we need a conscience and reminders of what we should be doing and why, as well as the human factors, if we are to get the best outcomes.
• Albert Fox Cahn, The ‘Surveillance Solutionism’ of Putting Cameras in NYC Subways. 22 September 2022, wired.com.
• David Lyon and David Murakami Wood (eds) 2021, Big Data Surveillance and Security Intelligence: The Canadian Case, UBC Press, Vancouver.
• Velani Ludidi, CCTV cameras left unattended while criminals bludgeoned innocent driver, Weekend Argus, 11 June 2022.
• Albert Fox Cahn, In the wake of the Uvalde shooting, surveillance tech is not the answer, 6 January 2022, fastcompany.com.
• David Meyer, MTA CEO blames subway shooting camera fail on bad ‘internet connection’, 14 April 2022, newyorkpost.com.
Dr Craig Donald
Dr Craig Donald is a human factors specialist in security and CCTV. He is a director of Leaderware which provides instruments for the selection of CCTV operators, X-ray screeners and other security personnel in major operations around the world. He also runs CCTV Surveillance Skills and Body Language, and Advanced Surveillance Body Language courses for CCTV operators, supervisors and managers internationally, and consults on CCTV management. He can be contacted on
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