Who’s afraid of “Big Brother?” Apparently, not the British public. In the UK, the number of surveillance cameras mounted in the country range from 2 million to 5 million. Londoners are practically under surveillance at every turn, making it one of the most monitored cities in the world. If that seems excessive, for locals, it’s not—it’s welcomed and embraced.
In fact, a recent YouGov survey suggests that 84 percent of the British public polled were happy to see closed-circuit television (CCTV) used to surveil the streets. That warm reception isn’t exactly surprising because heavy surveillance can prevent unfavorable outcomes.
For developers, keeping a watchful eye on their properties is a major priority. Having cameras installed to monitor their buildings provides security and safety for tenants, while protecting against vandalism and theft.
Machine learning techniques are giving CCTV cameras the ability to spot suspicious behavior without human supervision through ‘learned’ suspicious patterns which can predict potential illegal activities.
“What’s interesting is that machine learning techniques are giving CCTV cameras the ability to spot suspicious behavior without human supervision through ‘learned’ suspicious patterns which can predict potential illegal activities,” says Nick Wright, Strategic Consulting at CBRE UK.
“There is also continual advancement in camera technology which can now capture images from several hundred kilometers away with improved accuracy from high-resolution cameras and using image stitching technology to produce very high definition images. These images can also be equipped with facial recognition technology to identify individuals.”
But how much is too much? Protecting people’s civil liberties while protecting them from crime—while they’re constantly on camera when out and about in public—is a tough balance to strike.
“The flip side of the coin is how these technologies can be used to track people’s movement around the built environment be it a public realm, office, shopping center or warehouse,” says Wright. “The ability to capture that data and use it to improve space utilization or improve productivity is where many landlords are now heading as they look to improve the real estate end user experience.”
Whether the public is pleased or not with the seemingly nonstop monitoring, heavy video surveillance shows no signs of slowing down and will only become more advanced.
The ability to capture that data and use it to improve space utilization or improve productivity is where many landlords are now heading as they look to improve the real estate end user experience.
The rise of cameras
The earliest use of CCTV in the UK took place in the 1960’s. Since then, the use of CCTV’s all-seeing digital “eyes” has also increased in nearby nations, though not nearly as much as in London and in other major urban hubs throughout the UK. For example, according to a recent BBC report comparing CCTV camera adoption in several world cities, Paris had 326 CCTV cameras and Sydney, Australia, had 82 CCTV cameras, as compared to London with 7,400 and Manchester, England, with 1,400. In London, citizens are captured on CCTV cameras up to 300 times a day.
CCTV and crime
Advances in cost-effective CCTV camera technology—and its increasing prevalence throughout the developed world—are widely believed to make cities safer overall. With many citizens aware that their every move in view of the ubiquitous cameras can be used for evidence (and to prove their whereabouts, etc.), it’s no wonder they’re a widely effective tool for preventing burglary and theft. However, CCTV cameras are known to be less beneficial when it comes to curbing violent crime, which is often spontaneous and not premeditated.
A wealth of academic, law enforcement and government research shows that CCTV is most helpful in preventing crime in spaces where full, unobstructed views are possible to record. This includes areas like parking garages, public transportation stations, and on public buses and trains.
In one case, the installation of 646 CCTV cameras in 60 public transit station parking lots throughout London led to a 73 percent drop in vehicle-related crime, theft and burglary included. CCTV cameras also played a key role in solving the 2005 terrorist bombings in London.
CCTV cameras do not appear to be as powerful in preventing crime in more open areas, like highly-trafficked metropolitan centers, parking garages and city streets. However, at the same time, high-definition cameras that snap pictures of license plate numbers and other identifying details can help solve certain types of crimes when recording traffic on busy streets and highways. They can also track suspects police are on the lookout for.
Eyeing the future
While CCTV cameras are popular in London, they’re far from the only “Big Brother” technology tracking city dwellers’ moves. Winged drones, satellites in space, GPS technology embedded in mobile phones and police body-worn cameras are also watching. And these “eyes” everywhere will surely record and track citizens more and more as next generation surveillance technology continues to evolve and improve.
The quality of the cameras within surveillance devices—and the software that fuels them—is expected to get markedly better, too. Considerable advances in artificial intelligence-driven facial recognition camera innovation are already in the works, along with exponentially increased image processing power. In fact, this technology is poised to drastically change the surveillance landscape. In London, facial recognition software is being trialed at the Met and with the South Wales Police, according to the Financial Times. Other countries across the globe including the U.S and India are also using and testing out similar systems with their police forces.
Whether it’s protecting properties from vandalism, providing security for tenants or reducing crime in cities, visual surveillance is only going to improve and become more ingrained in city dwellers’ daily lives.
The questions we need to ask are, ‘How capturing imagery data will differ to organizations capturing mobile phone data which can be as equally intrusive?’, and ‘How do we as individuals value our personal data and what price to we attach to giving it away?’