In a world where new technology is always thought of as nothing but good, the advent of the surveillance camera – also known as closed-circuit television (CCTV) – was celebrated as a huge advancement in safety and law enforcement technology in the 1980s. The cameras were first used by local and city governments to monitor public streets, but businesses with high rates of theft quickly began implementing them as well.
Today, use of surveillance cameras is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to go anywhere without being caught on camera dozens of times. In fact, the average American is on camera up to 75 times per day when they venture out to conduct their daily lives. Plus, new home surveillance technology is making it affordable for individuals to even wire security cameras in their homes and watch the footage on their smartphones.
The majority of the footage captured by the average surveillance camera is relatively unexciting. But every once in awhile the cameras manage to capture shocking events like robberies, violent confrontations, celebrity faux pas, and evidence that puts murderers behind bars.
Unfortunately, all the benefits that come from the millions of hours of surveillance camera footage collected across the world every day come at a cost: our personal privacy.
Of course, it’s nearly impossible to make an argument against the use of surveillance cameras. People will say, after all, why not sacrifice a little bit of freedom for a lot more safety?
Conservatives know how that game ends though, and it’s never pretty.
Let’s take a hard look at just how effective security cameras are at discouraging crime and catching criminals – and at what cost. Then you can decide for yourself whether the sacrifice in privacy outweighs the alleged increase in safety.
Do surveillance cameras really help fight crime?
There are two fundamental ways that surveillance cameras can fight crime. They can assist in identifying a perpetrator escaping the scene of a crime, or they could discourage would-be criminals from committing any acts of crime at all.
But are surveillance cameras truly effective for either of these applications? Perhaps London, the most surveilled city on earth, can give us the answer.
Great Britain is home to an expansive network of public surveillance cameras, most of which record the activity of tens of thousands of citizens on the streets of London. Consequently, it would make sense for London to be a monumental success story for the use of surveillance cameras.
Interestingly, the story isn’t that cut and dry.
The Telegraph reports that only 1 additional crime is solved for every 1,000 surveillance cameras used in London, according to Det Chief Inspector of London’s famous Scotland Yard, Mike Neville. On top of that, a formal review of 22 studies concerning surveillance camera use
discovered that surveillance cameras have had a staggeringly low impact on crime rates, both in the U.S. and U.K.
What do surveillance cameras do then?
If the research shows that surveillance cameras neither improve law enforcement’s ability to solve crimes nor deter criminals from committing crimes, why are they being used at all? The flipside of this argument is that when the cameras do help solve a crime, the crime itself tends to be rather henious.
For example, the case surrounding the murder of an 8-year-old boy named Leiby Kletzky hinged entirely on security camera footage of the boy’s captor recorded by a car dealership. If the footage hadn’t been recorded, the boy’s murderer might have lived free for the rest of his life.
The abduction of a 22-year-old woman in Philadelphia was also solved through analysis of surveillance footage. Nursing assistant Carlesha Freeland-Gaither was approached at night and forced into the abductor’s vehicle, and there’s no telling what might have happened to her if law enforcement couldn’t have identified her captor in order to rescue her.
Another murder case involving University of Virginia student Hannah Graham was cracked wide open after security camera footage showed Graham’s killer following her in a shopping complex. The footage was blurry, and the man wasn’t even a prime suspect until investigators spotted him and dug deeper into his background. Again, had the footage not been available, Graham’s killer likely would have walked free.
The Cost of Administering Justice
In two of the three cases above, surveillance footage served as a means to administer justice, not prevent violence. That brings an important distinction to light; keeping people safe and serving justice are two very different things. In two of the three cases, camera footage did not prevent or curtail violence. It did, however, allow for the delivery of swift and direct justice.
Taking into consideration the research and real-life case studies, it seems that we shouldn’t consider this as an argument of privacy versus safety. Instead, we should think of the argument as weighing the value of privacy versus justice.
And that raises the all important question: Is justice worth more than privacy?
If surveillance cameras only increase the ability to administer justice but don’t provide any greater safety, are they still worth sacrificing our privacy for?
All things considered, there is no easy black or white answer here.
You’ll often hear liberal commentators claim that a sacrifice of individual freedoms which benefits the safety of the masses is perfectly fine, even virtuous. That’s the very argument responsible for the invasive federal surveillance that began after 9/11.
But the case of the surveillance camera is a little different. We aren’t necessarily talking about individual rights versus safety of the masses. Instead, we seem to be evaluating individual rights against the justice of a few.
What do you think is the right answer? Do you feel that the infringement of privacy is simply the cost of living in our modern world? Does it make a difference if the security cameras are in public vs. private areas? If security cameras don’t prevent crime or violence, do you think it’s still worth using them to potentially apprehend one of the few criminals that are caught on camera?
Share this article and feel free to drop your opinion in the comments. How do you feel about the rise of security cameras?