Monday 18 October 2010

A Libertarian Case For CCTV

I expect I'll have verbal rocks hurled at me for this, but the past week has convinced me that our esteemed blog mascot, Philip Davies, is correct - there is a solid libertarian case to be made for CCTV.

Oh, lay off, we haven't started yet! Hear me out, can ya?

Davies argued, at the IEA Voices of Freedom event back in June (reprised at the Tory fringe), that a variety of surveillance tools enhanced liberty rather than detracted from it. Now, I can't subscribe to his defence of DNA swabs for the innocent or widespread ANPR, but on CCTV I have been swayed ...

... albeit not unreservedly.

On Friday, two groups of thugs were sentenced. You will have, no doubt, seen the case of three 'professionals' who beat up a guy on a train journey out of London. You couldn't miss it considering the Daily Mail's screaming it from the rooftops, as well as being the headline story on that evening's ITN London news.

The Mail called it a 'sickening' attack following a simple request; that it was made worse by the post-assault celebrations; and highlighted that the thugs only received suspended sentences for stamping on someone's head. They were correct to be angry on all three counts.

But you may have missed a separate judgment on the same day, again involving three thugs; again instigated by an understandable request; again captured on CCTV; again comprising a foot to the head; and again greeted with a celebratory joke. Fortunately, this case saw the scum jailed for a total of 46 years.

Perhaps it was the poor sentence in the former case that got the Mail hot under the collar, but the latter ended in the death of an IT worker on Halloween last year yet received comparatively little coverage. The CCTV footage of the attack can be viewed here.

Both cases are hideous. Both cases were also brought to a successful prosecution, arguably, thanks to court submission of CCTV footage.

Watch either of those clips and tell me you wouldn't have convicted if you were on the jury. Then ask yourself if the evidence would have been quite so compelling if it were merely a verbal duel between barristers, coupled with testimony which would have come down to a simple 'do I believe the accused or the prosecution?'. Their word against the other's.

CCTV has rendered all such confusing factors obsolete. The jury could barely have a better view of events if they had been there at the time. So, therefore, it must be an incontrovertible 'good thing', yes?

Well, not quite.

Because both cases relied on footage captured by private enterprises, using unmanned equipment. The former was accessed from the ubiquitous train carriage cameras, after the victim reported his assault. Likewise, the crucial evidence in the murder case was not the monitored and manoeuvrable police CCTV, but that from a snooker club's static and unmanned front door camera.

I'm sure there may well be a few times that constantly monitored and manoeuvrable CCTV has effected a fast response to crime, but their being monitored, and manoeuvrable, isn't a deterrent (it was in operation during the murder), and all too often leads to mission creep such as bullying the public.

The problem is not CCTV cameras themselves, but the people who abuse us all by operating them in a disproportionate manner. There is little observable evidence that they deter, but plenty that they oppress and reduce our sense of freedom as a result of their over-zealous application.

Fill the country up with the bloody things as far as I'm concerned, but the footage should only be accessed when a crime has been reported/identified and evidence/action is subsequently required. If, as Philip Davies asserts, they are to be used as a tool for liberty, then human misuse must be eradicated and they must never, ever, be employed to actively seek out inconsequential misdemeanours.

Human nature dicates that CCTV has little use as a deterrent for we forget they are there (Channel 4's Big Brother worked on that very concept), but they do have their place in making us all more free by ensuring that those who commit crimes are rightly taken out of the equation.

Though I'm sure some may disagree.


Bucko said...

I don't see any libertarian application for CCTV.

Cameras are never watching me in case I am a victim of crime, but in case I initiate one. They are part of an overall beleif that we are all criminals who just haven't been caught yet.

I beleive in pro active police work and investigation, undertaken by a non poiliticised police force, real sentancing of the guilty by the court system for crimes where an actual victim is involved and real measures to repair the damage to society caused by the last government, that helps perpetuate violent crimes.

Philip Davies has also asked about his "right not to be a victim of crime." I would argue that he has no such right, just as he has no right not to be offended or to breath others fag smoke etc. Particularly when creating such a right would remove the rights of others.

Simon Cooke said...

Might I take a contrary view

Anonymous said...

I would guess that even if the state did not have it's own CCTV there will be very little space that is not recorded in the future. It would not surprise me at all if in the decades to come you will be able to look at most places in real time from your computer. Cameras will be anywhere where humans are and many places where they are not.
Fredrik Eich

Twisted Root said...

Davies' right not to be a victim of crime is called the right to defend yourself and property. Once you have contracted this out to the state CCTV is the logical progression. Unfortunately, as you state CCTV does not reduce your chances of being a victim, it only possibly enhances the chance of the perps being caught.

I am Stan said...

Yo Dick,

Mmmm fair point,

A train guard in direct touch with the transport police having a quiet word would could have prevented the situation escalating in the first place.

Ill always believe a human presence with authority will always work better than any machine in preventing crime,and of course attacks on the person should be punished harshly otherwise where`s the deterent for morons like these people.

Hey you aint putting cctv in your smoky drinky are you?..:)

Mark Wadsworth said...

Sometimes I find myself agreeing with you. They are a lousy substitute for proper police presence, but in terms of evidence they can be pretty good.

Dick Puddlecote said...

Aargh! Well-argued and challenging comments when I'm unusually mad hectic busy. I'll be back. ;)

Snowolf said...

I get where you're coming from Dick.

In the case of the snooker club, surely the CCTV was put there to help secure a conviction in the case of someone vandalising their property. To trot out the old phrase, their gaff their rules. To pick up on Bucko's point, that camera is there very much in case the club is a victim of crime.

I think the monitoring issue is an important one, it was by lucky chance that the camera happened to capture the incident in question. If the footage is only to be reviewed in the case of an incident, I'll give a qualified acceptance of that.

Obviously plod realised that the area was covered and requested that the snooker club released the footage to them for review. So far, no problem. It is in effect the same as asking eye witness to give a statement.

The problem comes if the police then demand that all footage from all cameras is released for systematic review, just in case they spot someone doing something naughty. Then it becomes a problem.

If the footage is accessed because someone has made a credible complaint about a definite incident, then I don't see a big problem.

If the CCTV camera is publicly funded and is used to watch people going about their business, live, then I have a problem.

The CCTV camera and video recorder is no more to blame than the knife used in a stabbing, or the gun used in shooting. It is the person using the item who is responsible.

Sam Duncan said...

Let's not forget that retailers have used CCTV for decades to combat shoplifting. I'm nearly 40 and can't recall a time when they didn't. The technology isn't new.

What is new, and objectionable, is the ubiquitous outdoor usage of CCTV by the state in place of of proper policing and streetlighting - both of which are better at reducing crime, as opposed to securing convictions. Snowolf's point about live public surveillance is well made too.

Terry said...

Bucko: "Philip Davies has also asked about his 'right not to be a victim of crime.' I would argue that he has no such right …"

OK, let us know where your gaff is, and I'll pop round and steal your stereo. You can't stop me, as you have no right not to be a victim of crime.

Bucko said...

Terry - You miss my point and only partially quote me.

What I was saying is, I do not have the right to watch your every move in public, just in case you commit a crime.

If you are a criminal, then I have the right to defend my person and proberty against you, with the help of law enforcement.

Its the "removing the rights of others" bit that you missed.

Dick Puddlecote said...

Bucko: If you reject CCTV entirely as something which can (not 'is always') be a force for good, I suppose we're not going to ever fully agree on this one. ;)

Even so, you do make some very good points.

"Cameras are never watching me in case I am a victim of crime, but in case I initiate one."

I'm not sure that's the case, although it can certainly feel that way sometimes. This is what I meant above by saying "they oppress and reduce our sense of freedom as a result of their over-zealous application". It's the misuse of CCTV which gives much of the public, quite rightly, the perception that we're all presumed guilty IMO.

"I beleive in pro active police work and investigation"

So do I. And, as I said, CCTV doesn't come anywhere close to the deterrent effect of physical police presence. It shouldn't be used that way (the murder case above would probably not have occurred if just a couple of coppers were hanging around at the time - by the way, the incident happened about 100 metres from the police station apparently).

However, you also mentioned sentencing in the court system, and this is where CCTV is extremely effective. In that murder case, I'd venture to suggest that a murder conviction wouldn't have come about without CCTV - the old way would have been bogged down with opinions and varying accounts of events, wriggly defence barristers twisting and contorting words and evidence, and the jury would have been left in enough doubt to either acquit, or the charge would have been lessened to manslaughter or even GBH. Those pictures left no room for the defence at all.

Agree entirely about reversing the damage from the last government. :)

"Philip Davies has also asked about his "right not to be a victim of crime." I would argue that he has no such right"

Maybe not a right, but since we're heavily taxed to pay for the police and the courts, we should be able to expect that our likelihood of being attacked is as near to 0% as possible. CCTV isn't great at deterring criminals - we've already established that more visible policing would help that - but it helps us to move towards the 0% figure if dangerous bastards, like the ones sentenced on Friday, are removed from society.

I believe that CCTV does help in that regard, and so does contribute to our liberty.

All (and the article) IMHO, of course. :)

Dick Puddlecote said...

Simon Cooke: I read that the other day and kinda agreed with it. You see, you're right that CCTV isn't making city centres safer, and if it is contributing to the police being lazy, then that's wrong.

That's not a damnation of the cameras themselves as something which can aid liberty, though, it's a problem with those who operate them or the police's attitude towards them (over-reliance).

As for the quality of images, I suppose that's a combination of positioning and luck. However, with the way technology has advanced so rapidly in the past 10 or 20 years, it can't be too long before they'll all be crystal clear in any circumstance.

Dick Puddlecote said...

Fredrik: Well, exactly. It was private CCTV which was most prevalent in the cases I cited, and it can hardly be libertarian to deny a business owner the right to use it to protect his property. So, if banning them is out of the question, we just have to get used to the fact that, like you say, there will be almost nowhere that isn't covered by CCTV.

And if we take the view that being recorded on CCTV is somehow infringing on our rights, how does that square with our getting angry at photographers being stopped from taking pictures where they like?

Dick Puddlecote said...

Twisted Root: Phew! Agree with all of that. :)

Yo Stan, yeah good point about the train guard. Of course, there were people on the train and someone eventually broke it up, but many's the story you read where they don't. This is where I do get on my high horse and ask why. I usually come to the conclusion that the public are of a frame of mind which tells them that it's not up to them. Just like when something goes wrong it's always someone else's fault. But blind state reliance is a different subject I spose. ;)

Dick Puddlecote said...

MW: Only sometimes? :-0

Snowolf: Absolutely spot on! Every word.

Sam Duncan: Yes, I don't remember days before CCTV either. It was always privately operated though IIRC. I think what gets up everyone's nose is the more high profile placement nowadays. It does appear to be sinister. But again, that could also be down to the many stories we read and hear about of their being misused, and our liberties abused as a result.

If CCTV was treated responsibly by public bodies, I'm sure there wouldn't be such suspicion surrounding them.

Dick Puddlecote said...

Oh yeah, Stan, no CCTV at smoky-drinky. What happens in smoky-drinky stays in smoky-drinky. ;)

Bucko said...

""Bucko: If you reject CCTV entirely as something which can (not 'is always') be a force for good, I suppose we're not going to ever fully agree on this one. ;)""

I reject it in the hands of public bodies. It is used in totally the wrong manner for reasons I and others have stated.

Until the mindset completely changes, I will never accept it.

When we are living in a Star Trek style, utopian future, when those in power aren't simply out to control us, then I may change my mind ;-)

(For home or business security, it's a useful tool)

Snowolf said...

When we are living in a Star Trek style, utopian future, when those in power aren't simply out to control us, then I may change my mind

Funny that, I always found the Federation to be a bit creepy, a bit like the Galactic Empire in Star Wars, but with hugs.

SadButMadLad said...

Further to Bucko and Snowolf's comments.

So the camera is there for the victim's benefit. In the case of private property (train or snooker hall) it's so that the owner can get recompense for any damage caused.

Taking it a step further, instead of having CCTV everywhere and anywhere why not have video recording equipment on the victim themselves? Spy style video cameras are small enough and light enough to not need back packs of batteries.

So instead of state officials recording inappropriately or trying to catch people committing minor crimes and "taxing" them, you record video information for your own use. It's already happening now to a certain extent with mobile phone cameras.

In terms of breaking someone's privacy it's not too bad. If you are amongst the general public then you are not in a private situation so it doesn't matter who is videoing for their own purposes to protect themselves. If you are in a small group then you can arrange for everyone to turn off their videos when it is really private. Or maybe you want them on to record the interesting bits ;-).

It all falls down however since the criminal can just nick the video recording equipment and take the evidence away with them. So you would have to implant the VRE. Not so good :-(

We don't want to go all cyborg like do we?

zaphod said...

I don't think we can put the genie back in the bottle. CCTV, in all its forms, is here to stay, and will soon be everywhere. It's caught the police out a few times already!

I quite look forward to the day when busybody neighbourwatchers are able to see everywhere via webcams. The imaginary world that they are trying to preserve will turn out to have been a myth all along.

Very few humans can be properly tamed. CCTV accessible to all, (not just the authorities), could get rid of a lot of hypocrisy.

Don't try to stop CCTV, just fight to make it accessible to all.

Tomrat said...

To me the libertarian question is simply this: is the CCTV peering into your life or is your life peering into CCTV?

In both cases the CCTV was from a private company on it's own property and used this information in identifying a crime committed.

This isnt a presumption of guilt; this is protection of own property - if you don't like being watched- don't use their services.

Consequentially state use of CCTV other than to protect it's holdings is unethical; their management of public commons means we have to use their services (or at least pay for them); the difference in this case being an exercise in social/behavioural engineering.

Angry Exile said...

Good post, DP. I'm anti-CCTV in the hands of the state, but in private hands... I suppose it's a property rights thing. Even if (oh, please) we de-camera'd the public bodies and told them to get off their arses and do it the old fashioned way, should I or anyone else be prevented from putting a CCTV camera on our own property? Assuming nobody says that we can't use cameras privately then there's no reason why we shouldn't let the cops have a copy of the recordings if (a) they really need it and (b) ask nicely. It's no different from them getting a witness statement except the witness wouldn't be me but a box with some glass and electronics bolted to the corner wall of Chez Exile.