Renewed concern concerning the safety of public streets, especially for girls, has prompted the UK government to announce the doubling of a “Safer Streets” fund to £45 million, with planned measures including more CCTV in public places similar to parks.

This can be so as to add to a street surveillance ecosystem that’s already extensive within the UK – sometimes called the most surveilled nation on Earth. The first wave of surveillance cameras went in 30 years ago, and by 2013 an estimated 5.9 million units were watching UK streets. That figure is probably going far higher today, driven partly by the brand new availability of compact cameras like dashcams, bodycams and doorbell cameras.

But the general picture of the UK’s street surveillance ecosystem is muddled, with some cameras too old to supply quality images, others aimed toward entryways fairly than streets, and a few smaller cameras, like those attached to bodies and vehicles, not suited to general public safety.

Enlarging that ecosystem still further could also be a seductive policy solution to street safety concerns, but there’s limited evidence of their effectiveness at reducing and deterring crime. And, as women’s groups have recently identified, the concentrate on street surveillance neglects the wider societal change required with the intention to make women feel safer in public places.

CCTV ecosystem

Most CCTV cameras within the UK are literally privately owned – either put up by businesses trying to protect their premises, or attached to non-public residencies for security. According to some estimates, just 1 in 70 CCTV cameras are state-owned, and lots of of those are placed in and around public buildings.

This has resulted in a disparate and fragmented CCTV ecosystem, with cameras concentrated in business districts fairly than in residential neighbourhoods. This disparity has led to concerns that cameras may serve to displace crime from central, surveilled areas into residential ones.

Even in business areas, many cameras were initially installed to observe entryways into buildings – not to reinforce street safety – and the angle at which they’re positioned reflects this function. Meanwhile, a certain proportion of cameras are broken and out of use – some are too old to supply reliable footage in criminal prosecutions, while others are literally switched off too resulting from funding issues. There are concerns that such cameras merely offer the illusion of safety and security, without the capability to record crime on our streets.

Public support for CCTV, which remains to be relatively strong, relies on the premise that cameras work – and that they may be utilized in the general public interest. While there are tens of millions of cameras watching UK streets, they’re only watching select parts of them in what’s a fragmented patchwork which will have little effect on street safety.

New cameras

But the CCTV ecosystem can be evolving. Old cameras have been replaced by latest digital ones with significantly improved surveillance capabilities. Sharper recordings now offer clearer pictures that might used as trustworthy evidence in legal proceedings. And the growing profusion of internet-connected “smart cameras”, offer a brand new technique to analyse footage via Artificial Intelligence (AI), each in real-time or via recordings after incidents have occurred.

In the UK, bodycams that also record audio are worn by some law enforcement officials.
John Gomez/Shutterstock

Such AI, in use across some CCTV ecosystems, may be used to mechanically analyse unfolding situations, potentially enhancing public safety. These systems are proving useful for identifying objects on train tracks, monitoring crowd size, recognising unusual behaviour, and identifying known suspects in a dragnet of recordings from a certain area.

But latest, AI-driven surveillance technology is fiercely contested. For instance, facial recognition software, which is seen as desirable for policing, has been criticised for being unreliable and racially biased. Police access to non-public surveillance footage, like that from a doorbell camera which records everyone who visits your house, could also develop into a contentious privacy issue within the near future.

Governing CCTV

New technology inside and behind cameras has the potential to reinforce the reliability of street surveillance. If it’s leveraged accurately, it could deter crime and facilitate the successful prosecution of criminals caught on CCTV. But to operate effectively and legally, this latest ecosystem would require latest types of governance and coordination that weren’t needed a decade ago.

Earlier this month, the UK government appointed a brand new Surveillance Camera Commissioner, who has been tasked with governing the fast-moving world of surveillance cameras. Noticeably, this office has been combined with that of the Biometrics Commissioner – a possible indicator of the direction of travel for the UK’s CCTV ecosystem, which could also be set to merge with biometrics and advanced surveillance software.

Still, the UK’s Safer Streets initiative does also look beyond CCTV: funding improved street lighting and increased street patrols. This points to a recognition that CCTV technology isn’t any silver bullet solution for public questions of safety – even throughout the limited scope of urban design.

In this context, and given existing flaws within the UK’s patchy CCTV ecosystem, faith in street surveillance as an efficient public safety provision could also be misplaced. Real street safety, extending far beyond the reach of CCTV cameras, won’t be achieved by technology – it’ll be achieved by social change.

This article was originally published at