Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Clichés are becoming hard to avoid

But it must be said, "Big Brother" was the first thing that sprang to mind on reading that plans are afoot across the EU to increase the cover of surveillance technology.

Naturally enough, CCTV is a useful tool. But unless coverage is total, it may as well be useless when trying to catch people after the fact. I'm on the record, in the liveblog of last Thursday's bombings, as reckoning that thanks to the massive CCTV coverage in London the guys responsible would be caught in a matter of hours. But unless the people arrested today turn out to be the bombers, which doesn't sound especially certain, as of yet they are still on the loose. All they needed to do was leg it to an area where the cameras are not. My confidence in technology has been shown to be ill-founded.

Lest we forget, in Orwell's increasingly prescient 1984, Winston Smith was able to indulge in activities disapproved of by the state for a fairly extended period of time, even though the government had video cameras even in his own home. Unless we get to a Star Trek scenario, where somehow Captains Kirk and Picard are able to summon up images of pretty much any part of their ship despite the fact that the Enterprise doesn't seem to be surrounded by and permeated with vast numbers of cameras, there will always be areas which cannot or are not being watched. And even if everywhere IS covered by cameras, you still need people to watch what they are filming or (after the fact) to trawl through the thousands of hours of footage looking for suspicious activity.

Just take London Underground. There are currently 6,000 CCTV cameras down there, set to increase to 9,000. 9,000 cameras, working just while the tube is running (c.5:30am to c.12:30am) would produce 171,000 hours of footage a day. And it's more than possible to sneak into the tube system at night to drop a few devices off, as large parts of the network start off overground - all you need to do is wander down a tunnel. The number of cameras in London as a whole is probably unknown, but would certainly run to well over 100,000 - a figure which would produce 2,400,000 hours of footage a day.

It simply isn't practical to keep an eye on everyone all of the time. It's not even practical to try to keep an eye on specific people all of the time. If you're using technology, this technology can be flawed, break down, or have limited coverage. Even if you're using security service personnel to tail people, these tails can be shaken.

In 1984, the point of the surveillance was deterrance. The camera in Winston Smith's home wasn't watching him all the time. But it COULD have been - and so he didn't want to risk doing anything suspect, just in case.

We are currently dealing with people who simply don't care whether they are spotted or not. They are prepared to kill themselves in the process of killing us - are they really going to worry about the minute chance of the watchmen actually watching when all it takes (as the apologists for last week's shooting keep pointing out) is a fraction of a second for them to set off their bombs?

When it comes to suicide bombers, by definition deterrance doesn't work, as deterrance implies that something worse could happen to you than you are prepared to accept. That was the whole point of the Cold War "Mutually Assured Destruction" nuclear policy. That policy wouldn't have worked for five minutes if either the US or USSR actually WANTED to be blown to shit.

When it comes to speed cameras, there is already a commercially-available map of the country listing their locations to enable drivers to break speed limits to their hearts' content. If our terrorist chums are as organised as we've repeatedly been told they are, what makes it so likely that they aren't going to scope out their routes beforehand and find CCTV-free black spots for either their route in or escape?

Yes, CCTV is reassuring. But in the face of suicide terrorists it is precisely no use in preventing attacks. Expanding coverage will do little but waste vast amounts of money providing endless hours of footage which no one will ever be able to trawl through. Much as with ID cards, which will cost insane amounts yet still be relatively easy to get around if you're determined to, I'd imagine that this money could be rather better spent elsewhere - for example, on recruiting and training more intelligence officers who, rather than merely observe as the cameras do, have the ability to interpret and act on information as well.

I don't have any solutions to our current dillemma, because I for one am convinced that there aren't any. We can not wipe out all terrorists, nor are we likely to be able to convince these particular terrorists to give up. We can, however, at least stop wasting resources chasing solutions which are nothing of the kind and try concentrating on preventing these bastards from launching their attacks in the first place rather than mopping up after the fact. And - at least when it comes to terrorism - mopping up after the fact is all that CCTV and ID cards are good for.

2 Comments:

Blogger Eric S said...

I suppose it could be argued that the CCTV cameras may deter *some* wannabe bombers--the ones who don't have the huevos to actually blow themselves up, but nevertheless hope to get their sorry little piece of the action...the members of Al Qaeda Lite, the Irish Republican Auxiliary, etc.

As you say, though, CCTV has severe limitations...not the least of which is the fact that cameras are ultimately reactive in nature. Imagine the amount of resources that would need to be dedicated to this system to actually prevent an attack. You need enough cameras to be sure you won't miss identifying a bomber before they enter the Tube. You need a small army of skilled technicians to be able to instantly identify the bomber on CCTV (or some sort of nice, expensive high-tech database and face-recognitino software). You need the communication systems to quickly relay information to the target station. You need a quick-response force of armed police to be able to reach any point in and around the station within a matter of seconds (imagine that at some of the larger tube stops...). It's an impossible, pointless task.

Even if the Underground could be made relatively secure, a bomber can just switch targets. "I think I'll try a bus today...or perhaps a crowded market...or a pub...or a busy restaurant at lunchtime..." Where do you stop?

Unfortunately, bureaucrats and politicians dare not be seen doing nothing, even if that's the wisest possible course of action (or inaction, as the case may be). Thus we have thousands of new CCTV cameras for the London Underground, the insanity of random bag searches in the NYC subway, and ever more preposterous ideas coming down the line.

7/27/2005 07:58:00 pm  
Anonymous Nic said...

Regarding the number of CCTV in London, this study, extrapolating data from Wandsworth council, guesstimate their number at 500,000 in the capital !

It's clear that the footage can only bu used after anything happened. Even if you had people watching in real time, after 20mn their attention is well bellow expectation and are useless.

And for the face recognition software, well, a lot of progress to be made !

7/27/2005 08:57:00 pm  

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