• Dr. Timothy Smith

Does Surveillance Work?


Photo Source: Max Pixel

“Mr. Marks, by order of the District of Columbia Precrime Division, I’m placing you under arrest for the future murder of Sarah Marks and Donald Dubbin that was to take place today, April 22 at 0800 hours.”

-John Anderton

Minority Report, 2002

The United Kingdom for many years held the position as the most watched country in the world with the London area boasting over 500,000 surveillance cameras, which comes to 1 camera per 1,000 people. Caught On Camera reports the average Londoner gets caught on camera 300 times per day. However, England is beginning to face a challenge from China as to who is the most watched country in the world. According to an article titled, “Welcome To The Surveillance State: China’s AI Cameras See All,” author Ryan Grenoble cites that China already has over 176 million cameras to watch its population of 1.3 billion people with plans to have 626 million cameras installed by 2020. (huffingtonpost.com) That number, if achieved, will equal one camera for every two people in China. Such coverage would make London’s system look almost like a free-for-all. Additionally, China recently concentrated very heavy surveillance in the Northwestern province of Xinjiang, home of the predominantly Muslim Uighur ethnic group with the intention to prevent any separatist activity. In a Wall Street Journal report, Josh Chin and Clément Bürge describe a massive combination of surveillance equipment at train stations, banks, and markets supported by police equipped with scanners to check cell phones for banned applications or information. Moreover, the Chinese claimed that their facial recognition capabilities in conjunction with the police could identify and apprehend a BBC journalist moving freely in Shanghai in under 7 minutes. Additionally, the goal stated by the Chinese government involves the use artificial intelligence to follow every move of its citizens and use such information as where they go, what they buy and who they meet with to predict crimes before they even happen.

Such pressing surveillance suggests that the future of law enforcement will be under the watchful eye of an all-seeing government, and in many cases, surveillance cameras aided dramatically in apprehending criminals and terrorists. For example, surveillance footage helped tremendously in the identification and eventual capture of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects before they could carry out another bombing. On the other hand, before pouring money into surveillance systems and hiring more analysts and enlisting artificial intelligence, the systems need close evaluation with clear indications that they work not to oppress everyday citizens, but in fact, actually, prevent crime. Interestingly, several law enforcement agencies did evaluate the effectiveness of surveillance cameras on the crime rate in their cities. In a report from ACLU.org, author Sonia Roubini wrote that the Chief of Police in Lincoln City, Nebraska studied the effectiveness of surveillance cameras in a part of the city with a high concentration of bars. The Police Chief, Jim Peschong, indicated that the cameras neither reduced crime or aided in evidence gathering. He intentionally tracked the effectiveness of the monitoring system compared to historical averages and did not see a difference. Similarly, other major cities including San Francisco and Los Angeles failed to see a reduction in crime with the installation of surveillance cameras. Roubini adds, “In January, the surveillance camera commissioner for England and Wales, Tony Porter, told reporters that he regarded a majority of the 4 to 5 million video surveillance cameras in the country as useless—meaning that they failed to deter crime or help manage traffic.” In contrast, a Homeland Security report from 2011 titled “Study Shows Surveillance Cameras Reduce Crime, in Some Cases,” indicated mixed results from cameras deterring crime. (homelandsecuritynewswire.com) The report concludes that placement and monitoring of the system strongly impact its effectiveness. Cameras in one neighborhood in Chicago called Humboldt Park reduced crime by 20% while cameras in another area, West Garfield Park, showed no effect on crime. The report attributes the difference to the perception of people in each community that the police actually monitored the cameras. The West Garfield Park citizens felt that the police did not pay attention to the cameras, resulting in no change in the crime rate.

Recently, China appeared in the news as it surged into the lead as the world’s largest surveillance state. With the installation of hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras, China seeks to reduce crime through surveillance and with the aid of artificial intelligence. The Chinese government and other law enforcement agencies continue to invest in monitoring and more recently in using artificial intelligence such as facial recognition to more accurately follow the movements of individuals. The belief that artificial intelligence will reduce crime remains an open question. It sounds good on paper, but it still needs to be proven. As police departments across the country and around the world have not seen a clear connection between surveillance cameras and crime reduction, we should insist that any new investments in surveillance by our governments and municipalities must come with a clear way to assess the effectiveness of such expensive equipment. Such equipment not only costs us money and requires additional personnel, but we must balance it against the fact that it erodes our sense of privacy and freedom.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback here and in kindle format here.