October 2006
Voyeurs and Exhibitionists

Crime, punishment, and CCTVs

Though not the only surveillance gadgets now in use, and hardly the most sophisticated at that, CCTVs are certainly among those widely used to monitor a public that is largely unaware it is being watched.

A typical security camera used for CCTV systems

THERE WAS a time when Pasay was an ideal place to raise a family. But when it was the turn of Paul Hinlo’s generation to call Pasay home, much of the city had already gone to seed. In the evenings, Hinlo recalls, drug dealers would wait for buyers on the street where he lived.

So one day Hinlo, a security consultant, bought a close-circuit TV system and had security cameras monitoring their perimeter fence and the streets leading to the otherwise tranquil compound where he had his house. He also got a PA system so that when the drug dealers came too close, he could tell them to go somewhere else without setting a foot outside his house. It’s not clear if they ever knew cameras were following their every move, but they would leave as soon as Hinlo asked them to. Other drug dealers also got the message to stay away from the area (at least that’s what the police station around the block told Hinlo).

Hinlo has since moved to a safer place, but he still has a CCTV system to help guard his home. These days practically anyone could be a target for criminals, and apparently, he doesn’t want to be caught off-guard. With his CCTV, he probably feels like he is on constant lookout within the safety of his own house, and even if he isn’t there.

The minute Hinlo steps outside, however, he knows it’s his turn to be watched. Once confined to banks and selected government offices, CCTVs are now in many of the malls (especially those in Makati), bus stations, LRT and MRT, hotel lobbies and elevators, and airports. There are even cameras on a few major thoroughfares, aimed at catching traffic violators. The Philippines’ seaports are soon to have CCTVs as well, in compliance with international rules and regulations. But although all these may sometimes seem too much, this country is still a long way off from the likes of London, which has been practicing what security experts call “blanket monitoring” for more than a decade now.

Up until the bombings in London last year, when it took only days for the authorities to come up with video grabs of three of the four suspects on their way to the spots where they would carry out their dirty deeds, only a few outside that city probably knew that dwellers and visitors there were being kept under tight watch through hundreds of thousands of close-circuit TVs. In fact, the average Briton was having his movements recorded at least 300 times a day as some 2.5 million CCTVs scattered all over the country kept silent vigil. London, which has the highest concentration of CCTVs in the world, had about half a million. This seems quite apt for the homeland of George Orwell, but then the famed author of 1984 probably would not have appreciated the near-realization of his dark look at the future. He did, after all, make it perfectly clear that he considered being watched at all times nothing less than a nightmare.

Today, however, that nightmare has become a necessity — a crucial weapon even, or so authorities battling a myriad of security threats are saying across the globe. Indeed, shortly after London demonstrated just how swiftly CCTVs enabled them to pinpoint who the bombers were, other cities outside of Britain began thinking that perhaps they should start stocking up on similar equipment. This is even though many of them already had significant numbers of such devices watching over streets, airports, seaports, office buildings, and private homes. With rising crime rates and the intensifying threat of terrorism, peace of mind has come in the form of a small blinking camera and a video monitor.

CCTVs of course are not the only surveillance gadgets now in use (as demonstrated in last year’s Garci wiretapping scandal). They are also hardly the most sophisticated among such gear. But they are certainly among those widely used to monitor a public that is largely unaware it is being watched. This is because the cameras have become so small and are usually placed in unobtrusive spots. Some manufacturers have even been able to produce cameras the size of buttons — truly a far cry from the days when these were as big as shoeboxes. And with China now also making them, the prices have gone down, thereby enabling more people — and yes, cities — to buy them, sometimes in bulk. That only means there are more CCTVs out there, watching and recording away. But only a few seem to think that’s a bad thing.

THE COMMON argument is, if you’re not a criminal, then you’re not being spied on, you’re being looked after. That in turn is based on the assumption that security cameras prevent crimes from taking place. This is also why some business establishments announce that they have CCTVs in their premises, the thinking being that someone with less than noble intentions would be deterred from going with his plan by the possibility that he would get caught. Yet far too many people go on and do the crime anyway, and clumsily at that, so much so that it has spawned an occasional U.S. TV special featuring stupid criminals caught on tape.

Just a few months before the July 7, 2005 bombings in London, the British Home Office released a study it had commissioned that showed how CCTVs had failed expectations. Done on 14 systems that included town and city centers, hospitals, and residential areas, the study saw no reduction in the crime rates that could be attributed to the cameras. That is, except for those in car parks, where cases of theft were noted to have lessened.

University of Leicester criminology professor Martin Gill, who headed the research, said the study’s findings were obviously “disappointing.” Several media reports also quoted him as saying: “The truth is that CCTV is a powerful tool that society is only just beginning to understand. It looks simple to use, but it is not. It has many components, and they can impact in different ways.”

“It is more than just a technical solution,” he added. “It requires human intervention to work to maximum efficiency and the problems it helps deal with are complex.”

A video still from a shopping center security camera showing James Bulger being led away by one of his killers. [courtesy of The Sydney Morning Herald]

Actually, among the study’s findings were that many of the monitors were left unmanned for long stretches of time. The systems were therefore just recording whatever was happening. There was no one monitoring what the cameras were seeing, and who could thus act to prevent any crime from taking place. That helps explain why two 10-year-old boys were able to lure two-year-old Jamie Bulger away from his mother at a suburban mall near Liverpool one Friday afternoon in 1993, and subsequently beat him to death. That is also why four bombers were able to sow death and destruction in a matter of minutes in London last year. The cameras were keeping watch, as always. But the human monitors were either absent or simply did not know what they were seeing and therefore failed to anticipate what could happen next. In the absence of other data, it could have tricky to figure out something was wrong in seeing two pre-teeners with a little boy in tow, or to pick out would-be bombers from hordes of commuters.

OME HAVE argued that some criminal minds take perverse pleasure in knowing they are being observed; the risk of being caught is part of the thrill. Then again, if one were, say, a suicide bomber, there is essentially no fear of falling into the hands of authorities after the deed is done. Instead, there is the reassurance that somewhere, there would be a record of the “martyr” about to fulfill his “mission” for his similarly deluded brethren to admire.

For the most part, the use of CCTVs for security in many public places comes after the fact — or after the crime, to be more precise. CCTV footage helped authorities identify little Jamie’s young murderers in 1993. Thirteen years later, video from various CCTVs would also help narrow down the authorities’ list of those who probably who placed explosives in the London Tube and a double-decker bus.

Perhaps then the security come-on for CCTVs should be modified: they may not prevent crimes, but those who commit one are not going to get away with it in the end. Having cameras always on you may not guarantee that you would not be mugged, raped, or killed, but at least you have the assurance that if you do become a victim, then your assailant is likely to get caught. Unless of course the security cameras happened to be out of order or turned off at the time of the crime. Whatever the case, you would still be without money, in trauma, injured, or dead.

Here in the Philippines, one seldom hears (if at all) of criminals being stopped in their tracks because of CCTVs. And while most banks now have security cameras, somehow few have figured prominently in police investigations of bank robberies. One can only guess why. Poor maintenance of the equipment, perhaps? Badly located cameras? Sheer ignorance on how they should be used? A brownout?

Still, there is one local case where a bank’s CCTV is being put to good use. Police are using footage from the bank’s security system to help the family of one of the “Wowowee” victims get back a substantial amount of money that was lost in the tragedy that occurred earlier this year. In the confusion, a packet containing P49,000 was given to another family that had also had a member perish in the stampede. The bank video supports the first family’s claim that the victim had withdrawn the money before joining the “Wowowee” throng at the Ultra in Pasig.

Hinlo’s experience of being able to shoo away his drug-dealing former neighbors in Pasay — without getting a blade stuck through his ribs — also shows that when used in the right manner, CCTVs can deter crime. At the very least, though, there should be human eyes constantly on the monitor as well.