Big Brother is watching – via CCTV


I am not alone in expressing reservations about the proliferation of CCTV cameras as the solution to crime prevention.

A couple of friends have just sent me a few links.

UK is CCTV capital

It is estimated that there are some 4.2 million Closed Circuit TV (CCTV) cameras in Britain, one for every 14 people. An individual might be captured by more than 300 separate cameras on an average day.

Such all-pervasive video surveillance, combined with the ability to exploit the information contained in numerous government and private databases, enables the almost seamless monitoring of the population.

The list of places monitored by CCTV is endless. Most of Britain’s urban centres are under surveillance, as are motorways, hospitals, schools, banks, museums, shopping malls, sports facilities and travel hubs such as railway stations and airports.

CCTV cameras are operated by the police, the security services, various national and local government agencies and a myriad of institutions and private companies.

Their insidious spread has seriously eroded long-standing democratic rights. The routine recording of video footage in both public and private spaces represents a massive intrusion into individual privacy.

CCTV is increasingly being used to monitor so-called antisocial behaviour, including minor offences such as littering, urinating in a public place and drunkenness.

All demonstrations are now routinely recorded by specialist police video units on the ground, and from helicopters. Even if no crime or public order offence has been committed, the footage is kept by the police, providing evidence of an individual’s political stance on issues such as the war in Iraq, nuclear energy, pensioners’ rights, hunting, etc.

And another relevant link: Urbaneye, a research study on the use of CCTV in the EU, which concludes:

that given the combination of opaque surveillance practices and uninformed citizens, the ‘black box’ of increasingly networked CCTV should be opened to ensure democratic control. The extent of surveillance should be made transparent by registration; the proportionality of deployment and its fitness for purpose should be assessed by a licensing system; managers and operators should be made accountable and regular inspection should guarantee compliance with a common and consistent set of codes of practice.

Rather than focusing solely on the manifestation of criminal behaviour, we should probe deeper into its root causes. Another friend alerted me to this article from the Law Library website, suggesting that urban ecology is a major factor in the rise in crime in cities:

In the period between 1920 and World War II, sociologists associated with the University of Chicago began to construct explanations concerning why cities might have higher crime rates than the hinterland. But more importantly, they were interested in documenting and explaining variations in crime levels within cities (Park, Burgess, and McKenzie; Shaw and McKay). At the time, many believed that crime in the city, and especially in particular sections of the city, was caused by the influx of immigrants, and especially those from “crime prone” ethnic groups. However, researchers from the Chicago School observed in their studies that some sections of cities consistently had higher crime rates than others, regardless of who populated those areas. They argued and demonstrated with data that crime rates can be explained more accurately by focusing on the ecology of areas in the city, rather than on the ethnic composition of the population inhabiting those areas. They described a process whereby immigrants, upon arrival into the United States, typically moved into the poor, blighted neighborhoods because that is where they could afford to live. Crime in these areas was high and reflected poor living conditions, as these neighborhoods experienced great levels of poverty, racial heterogeneity, transience, and family disruption. However, as succeeding generations of these immigrant families improved their lot they moved to better neighborhoods, and as a result, their ethnic groups’ crime rate declined. Meanwhile, new immigrants from different ethnic groups repopulated the neighborhoods that the earlier arrivals had vacated. Despite the near complete change in population composition, crime levels in these transitory areas remained high. Chicago School criminologists thus concluded that it was not criminogenic characteristics of ethnic groups that led to elevated rates of crime, but the nature of the urban ecology in which they lived.

To attack the rising crime rate, we also need to look at some of the socio-economic causes of criminal behaviour. Another excerpt from the same website:

Crime is said to be more likely in communities that are economically deprived, large in size, high in multiunit housing like apartments, high in residential mobility (people frequently move into and out of the community), and high in family disruption (high rates of divorce, single-parent families). These factors are said to reduce the ability or willingness of community residents to exercise effective social control, that is, to exercise direct control, provide young people with a stake in conformity, and socialize young people so that they condemn delinquency and develop self-control.

The residents of high crime communities often lack the skills and resources to effectively assist others. They are poor and many are single parents struggling with family responsibilities. As such, they often face problems in socializing their children against crime and providing them with a stake in conformity, like the skills to do well in school or the connections to secure a good job. These residents are also less likely to have close ties to their neighbors and to care about their community. They typically do not own their own homes, which lowers their investment in the community. They may hope to move to a more desirable community as soon as they are able, which also lowers their investment in the community. And they often do not know their neighbors well, since people frequently move into and out of the community. As a consequence, they are less likely to intervene in neighborhood affairs—like monitoring the behavior of neighborhood residents and sanctioning crime. Finally, these residents are less likely to form or support community organizations, including educational, religious, and recreational organizations. This is partly a consequence of their limited resources and lower attachment to the community. This further reduces control, since these organizations help exercise direct control, provide people with a stake in conformity, and socialize people. Also, these organizations help secure resources from the larger society, like better schools and police protection. Recent data provide some support for these arguments.

Social disorganization theorists and other criminologists, such as John Hagan, point out that the number of communities with characteristics conducive to crime—particularly high concentrations of poor people—has increased since the 1960s. These communities exist primarily in inner city areas and they are populated largely by members of minority groups (due to the effects of discrimination). Such communities have increased for several reasons. First, there has been a dramatic decline in manufacturing jobs in central city areas, partly due to the relocation of factories to suburban areas and overseas. Also, the wages in manufacturing jobs have become less competitive, due to factors like foreign competition, the increase in the size of the work force, and the decline in unions. Second, the increase in very poor communities is due to the migration of many working- and middle-class African Americans to more affluent communities, leaving the poor behind. This migration was stimulated by a reduction in discriminatory housing and employment practices. Third, certain government policies—like the placement of public housing projects in inner-city communities and the reduction of certain social services—have contributed to the increased concentration of poverty.

So let’s tackle some of these socio-economic factors – poverty, relative deprivation, low wages vs increased cost of living, lack of social services, lowcost highrise flats – and urban ecology issues if we are really serious about tackling the rising crime rate. Also we need to ask how our model of industrial development has alienated many people and contributed to the rising crime rate.

More police patrols, guards and CCTV cameras merely attack the symptoms – not the root causes.

We should also look at why white-collar crime – the crimes of the high-flying wheelers and dealers of the corporate world, not to mention the crooked politicians who siphon off millions of ringgit – does not receive the same publicity and concern.

Please help to support this blog if you can.

Read the commenting guidlelines for this blog.
Notify of

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Dear Mr Netto, I share our concern on privacy issues – and not just confined to police use of CCTVs in public spaces and buildings. With the increasing sophistication of eavesdropping and snooping tools, citizens’ rights to privacy are at risk. These rights are ARticle 12 of the UN Human Rights Declaration which our country subscribes to, in a limited manner. A key question to the ongoing debate on privacy and privacy violations is this: who watches the watchers? I would welcome the use of licensing, tight enforcements of warrants for eavesdropping and snooping on private citizens, and heavy penalties… Read more »


Penang is so, so small and the roads not all that many. Have pondok polis at every junction with policemen on patrol acting as traffic watch and helping with tourist information centre could well help very much.

CCTV? A good deterrent though.

C Y Sia

klang valley needs cctv to reduce crimes just like london
hope the new selangor govt can implement this. money saved by state govt on purchasing can be used for this cameras


Please check out the Traffic Monitoring System of DBKL and revert which camera is really on Real time Broadcast!


False sense of Security! No one monitoring & maintaining the cameras is as good as Canny Ong’s case.