Big Brother is watching – shame he can’t help

While Danes accept CCTV as an effective way of fighting crime, a study from the UK begs to differ

Ever get the creepy feeling you’re being watched? Well, maybe not if you’re Danish. A new study conducted by the Danish domestic security agency PET showed that a majority of Danes backed CCTV as a way to improve safety and security.

The unexpected results of the 2,000 person survey were met with enthusiasm by PET.

“It’s surprising for us that people find visible security measures comforting,” Anja Dalgaard-Nielsen from PET told Jyllands-Posten newspaper. “We thought cameras and fences would increase people’s insecurity because they would be reminded of terrorism.”

The study, entitled ‘Safety and security in busy spaces’, discovered that people could be divided into three broad categories according to what they felt were the best measures to improve safety and security. Two of these groups – accounting for 68 percent of the participants – believed that visible security measures, such as CCTV, would make them feel safer in public.

The use of security cameras has become increasingly widespread in Denmark, with an estimated 350,000 CCTV cameras installed across the country. The revelation of this trend earlier this year led to several organisations and experts questioning whether Denmark was headed toward a ‘Big Brother’ state. Among them was the Trade Organisation for Safety and Security.

“It might surprise some, but we think we need to be careful with letting more areas be covered by video surveillance,” the organisation’s CEO Kasper Skov-Mikkelsen told Politiken. “When every year an extra 50,000 new cameras are put up and private individuals don’t have to seek permission from the police or the Danish Data Protection Agency, there’s a need to slow down.”

Another major critic of CCTV has been Jacob Mchangama of conservative think-tank Cepos. He has repeatedly questioned whether security cameras actually make society safer.

“CCTV in airports and metros is unproblematic and can be useful for the police in solving serious crime,” Mchangama told Politiken newspaper in August. “But if it’s allowed to spread to our streets it can quickly become problematic and create a more paranoid society.”

While PET’s latest study seems to put this concern to rest, Mchangama also pointed out that a major problem with recorded video surveillance is its potential to be used in ways other than how it was originally intended, and that the recorded information of a public’s movements could be abused.

Copenhagen’s residents are not subject to the same level of surveillance as residents of cities such as London, with the majority of security cameras installed by home-owners and business owners rather than by local authorities. Regardless of who installs a camera, however, they must comply with two Danish laws – the video-surveillance law and the data protection law. These laws place strict limitations on how and where cameras may be placed and for how long the footage may be stored before being deleted.

But more public surveillance is coming to Copenhagen. At least 30 high-definition cameras have been installed along stretches of the walking street Strøget, while the City Council approved a plan this April to introduce cameras into areas of Nørrebro, especially near apartment blocks. Lars Weiss, a former Social Democrat MP, explained that the cameras would prove useful in identifying criminals.

“We have been contacted by housing associations who want the opportunity to install surveillance cameras,” he told Politiken. “But there are also some areas of town where we are told that witnesses to crimes are hesitant to come forward because of fears of reprisals. You don’t have that problem with a videotape.”

While the study suggests that Danes, for the most part, believe surveillance is benign so long as it is regulated and used to prevent crime, experience abroad questions whether it is really so effective.

A 2005 study conducted in the UK by the Home Office concluded that the introduction of CCTV into town centres and residential areas had a negligible impact on crime, with some areas witnessing an increase in crime after the deployment of cameras. An estimated 1.5 million CCTV cameras are thought to be operating in the UK.

The analysis of the data was filled with caveats, however. For instance, the researchers questioned whether increases in crime (73 percent in one case) were real, or whether they could be attributed to an increase in the reporting of crime after the deployment of the cameras.

Significantly, however, the study also assessed the psychological impact on residents after the deployment of security cameras. It showed that the number of residents reporting that they felt safe increased by up to 16 percent after cameras were installed. On average, over 80 percent of the Home Office study respondents were happy about the cameras after they were introduced.

But not all of the reports findings were so positive.

“All [of the 13 CCTV] systems [looked at in the study]aimed to reduce crime, yet this study suggests that CCTV has generally failed to achieve this. Although police-recorded crime has decreased in six out of the 13 systems for which data was available, in only three cases might this decrease be attributable to CCTV,” the study read.

The study also discovered that “the idea of CCTV was far more appealing in theory than it proved in practice.” After the installation of CCTV, the public’s approval and perceived effectiveness of CCTV dropped significantly in all of the case studies compared to their thoughts before the installation.

CCTV has been effective in some pivotal cases, however – most notably after the 2005 London Underground bombings and the city riots in August, in which recordings were used to trace and identify the culprits.
In Copenhagen, support for CCTV increased after the murder of 19-year-old Anton Nije was caught by CCTV cameras in shops on Strøget, leading to the prosecution of a 20 and 21-year-old.

CCTV is still in its infancy in Denmark, though S-train operator DSB supports it after hundreds of dangerous incidents were averted and dozens of crimes have been solved since cameras were installed on trains and platforms across the city.

So while CCTV can provide effective retrospective evidence for crimes, its potential to decrease crime is questionable. And while people generally feel positive about CCTV before it is implemented, positive feelings tend to drop off quickly after its introduction.  Given that London’s over 10,000 cameras cost the Home Office over 170 million kroner to install, the question is whether rolling out cameras across Copenhagen really is a sound investment.