‘Big Brother is Watching’- A survey that is fundamentally flawed!
In the report which Big Brother Watch announced as ‘The first comprehensive analysis of the number of CCTV cameras controlled by local authorities in Britain in 2009’, the ‘facts’ produced to justify the statement are as inaccurate as the statement itself!
Yes it is an interesting survey, and the majority of the figures quoted for the number of cameras controlled by an authority coincide with our own survey, undertaken to advise the National Strategy Programme Board earlier in 2009, but the research involved is so flawed in its approach that the figures become meaningless, and the interpretation of the figures is too simplistic to carry any validity. I would have expected that sending out 428 Freedom of Information requests to the Local Authorities would have been far more precise, but it was worded in such a manner that it immediately results in confusion, inaccuracy and double accounting, and raises one major doubt. ‘What on earth was the survey actually trying to find out in the first place? It is so full of illogical anomalies that in fact the whole survey and the conclusions ‘Big Brother Watch’ interpret become meaningless.
One major issue causing this is the inept wording of the FOI request which asks ‘I am requesting, the total number of cameras controlled by (your) Council on 1 October 2009’. What does the word ‘controlled’ mean and does it really matter (yes see later)? What was the purpose and function of the cameras? Was it being monitored or just recorded? Was it monitoring the public in public areas, or effectively private property as most other major employers and land and property owners do? Many of the comments made following the survey relate to CCTV systems and other images from the ‘lower end’ pub and corner shops systems which are hardly comparable with the professionally managed town and City Centre surveillance systems and yet they have all been lumped into ‘the facts!’
The report highlighted, and did exclude figures from 8 named Councils whose cameras are operated by another Council and so those figures were excluded as they were reflected elsewhere in the report, fair enough? Well, NO! Our database shows 43 Councils (not 8!) have their cameras monitored by neighbouring authorities, and 2 other control rooms monitor 13 local authorities and 400 cameras. Checking those authorities with the tables in the survey and with the managers of these systems, it is clear that hundreds of cameras shown as controlled by the authority owning them, are also included in the response by the Local Authority carrying out the monitoring . A clear case of very significant double accounting, which amounts to an overstatement of about a thousand cameras! In one instance where such an error had been made by BBW they even decided to inform the local press the authority had one of the highest proportions of cameras to population when in fact if they used the correct figures it was lower than average!
The second issue relating to the FOI phrase ‘total number of (CCTV) cameras controlled by your Council’ also confuses the later statement that ‘where the council has disclosed the number of ‘internal’ (or ‘non-public facing’ cameras) they control, we have included those in a separate column’. Why, when these are still included in the BBW overall headline figure? It is nonsense! What if the Council just followed the precise wording of the request and did not categorise the cameras but included every single camera without differentiating? Again we compared our database of local authority of Public Surveillance cameras with the figures in the report and in instances of major differences asked the managers for clarification. The responses were such that even if managers had highlighted the differences these were ignored, and only the overall total quoted. Our belief is that this overstates the number of cameras by at least 5,000 for England and Wales and particularly affects some of those authorities featured as having the highest number of cameras per head of population.
What is the truth then?
So what are the differences between the User Group research and ‘Big brother is Watching’? The overall BBW headline figure of 59,753 specifically includes 3,376 ‘internal’ cameras identified on some very confusing logic! So the more comparable figure in respect of the interpretation of the report is the 56,377 quoted.
Our own survey in early 2009 updated our database of local authority and Police CCTV systems used for Public Space CCTV Surveillance specifically in England and Wales for the National CCTV Strategy. This specifically identified 29,702 cameras but with a margin of error of 10% indicating approximately 33,000 such PSS CCTV cameras in England and Wales.
Simply for comparison purposes therefore we have deducted the Big Brother Watch figures for the Scottish and Northern Ireland authorities (8,571) from their total of 56,377 leaves a comparable figure of 47,806, still a major difference from our assessment of PSS CCTV cameras of 33,000 for England and Wales!
BUT this ignores the concerns about the survey expressed by dozens of Members over the mis-representation of the ‘real’ figures for their systems, based upon the misleading requirement for the total number of cameras controlled by them.
Combining a detailed analysis of the survey and the managers’ comments we strongly believe the BBW figures overstate the total number of cameras, by duplicating the numbers owned by one authority but monitored by another, by in excess of 1,000.
But, even more critically the response from our members has shown that in asking for the number of cameras ‘controlled’ by the authority, without defining any specific use or function, has resulted in a great many authorities taking it literally and including ALL cameras even if just used for building management/security. A detailed analysis of the survey shows this has ‘bumped up’ the camera numbers by in excess of 10,000. So the true comparison for PSS CCTV cameras is around 47,806 less 11,000 ie say 37,000 PSS CCTV cameras, not too dissimilar to our 33,000.
Is it important? Well they use their figure to make various pejorative headline statements such as ‘Our research shows that in less than 10 years the number of CCTV cameras controlled by local authorities has almost trebled’, ‘a figure of 59,753 CCTV cameras controlled by councils in the UK – up from 21,000 ten years ago’ . The question is did the previous survey also use the same woolly language and definition? Are we comparing like with like, or is the whole report totally flawed with their lack of understanding of CCTV, muddling CCTV used for property management/security with those which might affect the public more directly in Public Space Surveillance?
Certainly, the in depth analysis of the survey shows many anomalies, including the absence of many of the new unitary authorities formed in April 09! But, in general terms, it does tend to confirm our previous survey which showed the 33,000 Public Space Surveillance cameras in England and Wales.
Yes ‘Big Brother might be Watching‘ but he is certainly not paying much attention to the essential need for clarity, accuracy, thoroughness and knowledge of the subject rather than rely on naivety in their search for newspaper headlines. It’s a great shame that what otherwise would have been a valuable survey welcomed by all, becomes virtually meaningless and useless!
The Value of CCTV
A lot of rubbish is talked about the value of CCTV Public Space Surveillance largely due to the ignorance of the organisations writing it , who like taking ‘statistics’ or ‘one off comments’ from people who have other axes to grind, and then using them to add ‘facts’ to support their very spurious case without any experience in the use of CCTV.
Let’s start off with one basic incontrovertible fact. That virtually every PSS CCTV Camera in the UK has been installed at the instance of the local community, begging the Councils and Councillors to provide CCTV to improve community safety
Tom is doing a separate article on this topic later in the issue which will be far fuller and more factual but this contribution is based on a small survey undertaken of the managers of the systems of what PSS CCTV achieves and attempts from the results to clarify some of the misleading statements that have been made. The survey was carried out with limited time of a few dozen councils which in total operate some 3,300 cameras which in rough terms amounts to about 10% of the town and city centre PSS CCTV cameras in England and Wales, a statistically significant sample which randomly reflects some of the smaller installations, larger installations, inner cities and more rural and suburban locations.
The facts are:-
The average running cost of a CCTV system with an average 150 cameras is about £320,000.
The average number of events monitored in a year for each system is just over 3,000 equivalent to 20 incidents per year per camera, giving an average cost per incident of just over £100.
Compare these operational costs with those of funding additional Police Resources. Big Brother Watch quoted a cost of about £25,000 per new officer, based on the starting salary of a Police Constable. In their usual misleading way they ignore the facts that any employer would understand. The additional costs involved in employment, NI, Pensions, HR oncosts, admin support etc which must be considered in any staff employment and a rough rule of thumb that these roughly equal the salary costs. Big Brother Watch also ignore that Police Officers work around 40 hours a week, need holidays, go sick and so again the rule of thumb is a 5 person rota is necessary to keep one police officer on the street 24/7/365. The actual cost of that would in fact be around 5 times £50,000 or £250,000 per year! Even then he can only be in one place at one time and deal with one incident at a time!
Compare that cost of the equivalent of one police officer on the street 24/7/365 at a cost of £250,000 with the operational and monitoring costs of a professionally managed PSS CCTV system comprising 150 cameras at £320,000, sufficient to give reasonable coverage of many of our cities!
Isn’t it also appropriate that when we have such professional, skilled Police Officers, that we use them effectively to do the tasks they have been trained for rather than just patrolling around looking for problems, but have the problems identified by CCTV and only those that require an officer to attend are passed on to the officers?
The hidden value of CCTV however is not just the financial benefits, but the fact a picture is worth 1000 words and within limits the camera never lies. Few statistics are available illustrating the number of guilty pleas received once a villain knows he can’t argue with the recorded images saving masses of Police and court time, but it happens every day. The public see the value virtually every day in the newspapers and on TV and the quality of the professional CCTV systems, comments about the 80% of images being unsuitable are misrepresented as these largely relate to the low end systems Police have to deal with from corner shops and private systems and not the PSS systems, so lets all actually start giving the doubting Thomas’s the facts, although without doubt there will be some organisations which will try and make their case for their own agenda, regardless of the actual facts.
(130) By Peter Fry, 21 Jan 2010, 17:23