So why didn’t CCTV deter the looters?

Lovely Guardian column by Cory Doctorow.

The real story for me is about surveillance, and not the mere use of CCTV footage to apprehend rioters after the fact. It’s about the total failure of CCTV to deter people from committing crimes in the first place.

After all, that’s how we were sold on CCTV – not mere forensics after the fact, but deterrence. And although study after study has concluded that CCTVs don’t deter most crime (a famous San Francisco study showed that, at best, street crime shifted a few metres down the pavement when the CCTV went up), we’ve been told for years that we must all submit to being photographed all the time because it would keep the people around us from beating us, robbing us, burning our buildings and burglarising our homes.

A year before the Vancouver Winter Olympics, a reporter from a one of the local papers called me to ask whether I thought an aggressive plan to use CCTVs in the Gastown neighbourhood would help pacify the notorious high-crime heroin district. I said that the deterrence theory of CCTV relied on the idea that the deterred were making smart choices about their futures and would avoid crime if the consequences might catch up with them.

Then I recounted my last trip through Gastown, where the pavements were thronged with groaning and unconscious emaciated addicts, filthy and covered in weeping sores, and asked if those people could be reasonably characterised as “making smart choices about their future.” I explained how my hire car had been broken into by a thief who’d left four perfect fingerprints on the passenger window, not caring whether the crime was associated with her or his biometrics forever.

Of course the CCTV fanatics will point to the successful use of the technology to identify looters. But that’s shifting the ground: the argument for CCTV is deterrence. It doesn’t work as advertised. In fact, it’s clearly most useful only if people are not deterred.