London: Panopticon Cracks

Londoners are seen on the city's vast amalgam of surveillance cameras an average of 300 times a day. Which means that the terrorists behind yesterday's bombings almost certainly knew they'd be caught on tape -- and went ahead with their attacks anyway.cctv13.jpgBefore Britain began installing its network of 4.2 million spycams, before spycams were even invented, backers of surveillance were arguing that people are less likely to do horrible things when they know they're being watched. That's the reason Jeremy Bentham in 1791 proposed in 1787 a "Panopticon" -- a jail in which the warden could always see what his prisoners were doing. It's the reason Chicago is linking together more than two thousand cameras into a single surveillance network.But whether bad guys actually act differently under watch is debatable. After dozens of studies of Englands Close Circuit Television spycam system, there is "very little substantive research evidence to suggest that CCTV works," the U.K.s National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders reports.In America, some cities have reported short-term crime drops after the cameras have been installed. But English studies suggest that these dips are temporary, at best. Why? My guess is that crooks get used to the spycams -- and, after a while, realize that no one's watching, at least in real time. There are just too many cameras to keep track of. And the average monitor jockey can only watch six to eight video feeds, for about twenty minutes, before he starts to lose focus. It makes for an awfully weak deterrent.Now, there's certainly some forensic value to having all those electronic eyes installed. As the AP, among many others, have noted, "the British capital's ubiquitous closed-circuit TV cameras may hold the key to determine who was behind Thursday's series of terrorist strikes." But as a preventive measure, the 7/7 attacks have shown the spycams to be flimsy, at best.If there's a hope for surveillance-as-deterrent, it may lie in places like Chicago. Instead of forcing squads of monitor jockeys to make sense of confusing, overlapping video feeds, the city is installing video understanding algorithms into its spycam network. Come too close to a restricted government building, leave a package on an El platform, or even hang out for too long on a ghetto street corner and - smile! - you're on Criminal Camera.But it's going to take years for the software to get installed. And no one's really sure whether it can work on a massive, city-wide scale. For now, we're stuck with the same old systems -- and the same old results.

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