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Spy cameras won’t make us safer

[ Full-body scanners and innumerable surveillance cameras…. neither are effective for fighting crime, but both are excellent tools for implementing a social control grid….  You are living in a “PanOpticon.”  ]

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(CNN) — On January 19, a team of at least 15 people assassinated Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. Dubai police released video footage of 11 of them. Although it was obviously a very professional operation, the 27 minutes of video is fascinating in its banality.

Team members walk through the airport, check into and out of hotels, get into and out of taxis. They make no effort to hide themselves from the cameras, sometimes seeming to stare directly into them. They obviously don’t care that they’re being recorded, and — in fact — the cameras didn’t prevent the assassination, nor as far as we know have they helped as yet in identifying the killers.

Pervasive security cameras don’t substantially reduce crime. This fact has been demonstrated repeatedly: in San Francisco, California, public housing; in a New York apartment complex; in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; in Washington; in study after study in both the U.S. and the U.K. Nor are they instrumental in solving many crimes after the fact.

There are exceptions, of course, and proponents of cameras can always cherry-pick examples to bolster their argument. These success stories are what convince us; our brains are wired to respond more strongly to anecdotes than to data. But the data are clear: CCTV cameras have minimal value in the fight against crime.

Although it’s comforting to imagine vigilant police monitoring every camera, the truth is very different, for a variety of reasons: technological limitations of cameras, organizational limitations of police and the adaptive abilities of criminals. No one looks at most CCTV footage until well after a crime is committed. And when the police do look at the recordings, it’s very common for them to be unable to identify suspects. Criminals don’t often stare helpfully at the lens and — unlike the Dubai assassins — tend to wear sunglasses and hats. Cameras break far too often.

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