Start Seeing CCTVs

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I watch a lot of detective television programs, and lately I’ve been noting more cameras watching me as I watch TV.

For example, I will watch Law and Order in a pinch, but thanks to online streaming I have become enamored of British shows and have developed a fondness for Danish, Swedish and French police procedurals. I always come back to the Brits, though. I love these shows for the same reasons others do: for the joy of figuring out whodunit, for the hope that there will be justice at the end, and for the appreciation of the procedure.

Recently I found myself in the following situation. After watching seasons one and two of The Fall and feeling a bit morose at the prospect of only seeing Gillian Anderson in The X-Files reruns or BBC period pieces, I begrudgingly went back to Law and Order and the reliability of Jack McCoy. The episode began with the crime revealed and the detectives at the scene getting the names of witnesses and making bad puns. There was a frustrating lack of evidence and the detectives went to work on the investigation.

This is when I got antsy. “Look at the CCTV!” I found myself saying, out loud, at the screen. “Just look at the CCTV footage!” But wait. This isn’t London. This is New York City. While CCTV (closed circuit television) definitely exists here, in the US CCTV isn’t the institution it is in the United Kingdom. The police just have to work a bit harder to get their guy, or at least find him without the help of thousands of CCTV cameras.

Initially I was shocked at myself, at my dependence upon CCTV to proxy-solve crimes. In leaning on the CCTV footage as a starting point I was not fully considering what CCTV is or how it functions in society at large. I hadn’t thought much about CCTV here in the US, in Minneapolis. But then I noticed cameras downtown, under the skyways, perched on the corners of buildings pointed down at me, at all of us.

The Ubiquity of CCTV in Urban Space

cameraLondoners are used to being on camera approximately 300 times per day. This is not to say they all like it, but most of them have become accustomed to it. It’s an inescapable part of daily life. So imagine my surprise when this week the BBC reported that many local governments throughout the UK are cutting back on CCTV due to budget cutting measures.

(Note: that this pertains to public CCTV, not private CCTV.)

This highlights one of the differences between CCTV in the US and the UK. Twenty years ago in the UK municipalities invested public funds to build a large CCTV network to monitor public spaces. Private CCTV has existed for just as long but has been less prominent up to now. In the US, privacy concerns first led to strong networks of private CCTV, which eventually began cooperating with municipalities. What were once robust networks of businesses and banks monitoring customers eventually morphed into public-private partnerships, of sorts, monitoring public spaces.

For example, in 2003 the City of Minneapolis received a donation from Target Corporation to supplement and upgrade the City’s video surveillance in the downtown SafetyZone. The donation purchased and installed cameras, augmented monitoring infrastructure, included the technology needed to record digital video and created centralized monitoring in order to increase safety in the designated area. The donation, as well as other corporate donations from downtown businesses, was critical in linking the existing private CCTV infrastructure in downtown Minneapolis with the smaller number of public cameras. The SafetyZone Project is now a 501(c)3 and a subsidiary of the Downtown Improvement District (DID). DID operates the Fusion Center, located within the Minneapolis Police Department’s First District, which is the informational hub for CCTV and other coordinated safety operations downtown.

The reason for this and other CCTV projects is cited broadly as public safety, but specifically for the purposes of crime reduction, deterring “anti-social behavior,” and the more efficient use of police funds. These reasons are almost always used to justify the expenses and deflect criticisms from privacy advocates even though the evidence of CCTV’s positive impact is frequently questionable. In fact, in most instances the only notable decrease in crime linked to CCTV is found in fewer car thefts and property crimes. Rates of violent or spontaneous crimes remain largely unchanged.

CCTV is often used in lieu of police officers on the beat and in this way CCTV cuts the community off from those who have sworn to protect and serve. That human interaction is reduced. Meanwhile, CCTV is only questionably effective, it was initially designed to serve private business interests and the cameras are always running, often on public spaces. There are instances where CCTV was integral to solving major crimes, such as the Boston Marathon bombing, and there are other examples of CCTV helping authorities quickly respond to criminal activity. Still, I would rather have boots on the ground participating in and helping to build communities.

Minneapolis is not London; a Big Brother comparison may be apt, but is less obvious here. However, when smaller numbers of public cameras are used to supplement and lend legitimacy to a broader network of existent private cameras there are questions. Who is watching us? Who is watching the watchers? How are the recordings used? What guarantees do we have that the private corporations that are monitoring public spaces will use the cameras with the public interest in mind? What about profiling? Is this surveillance detrimental to the way some residents interact with and in public spaces? Does CCTV lead to some people feeling unwelcome in shared, public space? Is the monitoring equitable? There is the good of the whole and the good of individuals to consider.

I, like other Minneapolitans, am on camera several times each day: I walk by a bank on my way to the bus stop, I ride public transportation, I walk down Nicollet Mall, I work in a large office building, sometimes I walk through the skyways, I cut through parking lots. Proponents of CCTV will say that law-abiding citizens have nothing to worry about. I may rely on CCTV when I’m watching the Metropolitan Police solve a crime, but I’ve also gleaned a healthy dose of some of that British cynicism which has produced some of the best-loved literary paranoiacs. Now I can’t help but see the cameras.

Leah Puffer

About Leah Puffer

Leah has a Master's degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of New Orleans. She lives in Minneapolis.