No country has embraced visual surveillance more aggressively than Great Britain. Despite a few high-profile busts, the evidence is clear that cameras aren’t always effective at deterring crime or solving cases.
No matter how many unblinking eyes a camera network has, it can only detect change at the speed of human perception. That’s why CCTV camera systems need analytics to function effectively.
1. Deter Crime
Many people think of security cameras as passive observers that capture footage after a crime has happened (think grainy video on the news of convenience store robberies). But research and technology advances could transform these devices into “eyes with brains,” able to detect suspicious activity or even prevent incidents.
For example, smart cams with sirens can actively deter criminals by sounding a 104-decibel noise or flashing LED lights. This kind of active deterrence can help police and other law enforcement officers quickly catch criminals before they can steal or break into a business.
A neighborhood surveillance system is a great preventative tool to have in place, particularly when combined with outdoor lighting and increased foot patrols. It can also make a city feel safer to residents and visitors, while helping businesses protect their people and inventory.
2. Detect Suspicious Activity
For law enforcement, detecting suspicious activity is an enormous challenge. Officers can be tasked with monitoring surveillance footage for hours at a time and sifting through thousands of images.
This labor intensive process can be improved with behavior recognition software that is designed to monitor CCTV footage and alert police personnel when it detects suspicious activity. This can free up officers to focus on other tasks and prevent operator complacency.
The threat of false positives needs to be recognized, however. While these can be mitigated by increasing the number of stages of filtering, this is expensive in terms of cost and time. Hence partial automation is preferable if it can be achieved with minimal cost to surveilled subjects and the surveillance officer.
3. Track Intruders
For all the cheerleaders praising surveillance technology, it’s important to recognize that it has limits. It can’t replace radar sensors that are capable of providing theaterwide views and tracking multiple targets over long periods of time. These are the kinds of capabilities that a military commander might need for unblinking surveillance in contested airspace, requiring something far more survivable than a Predator or Reaper.
The i-LIDS dataset  is a challenging and realistic example of such a surveillance task. It captures various times of the day, including dawn, dusk and night. It also includes various weather conditions such as fog, rain and snow. and it also contains various distractions, such as foxes, insects and shadows on the fence, as well as people walking, crawling and rolling towards the fence and carrying climbing aids like ladders.
4. Identify Suspects
George Orwell’s Big Brother would drool over the all-encompassing surveillance system quietly under construction. In cities across the United States police can monitor large areas with cameras linked to state, local and federal databases. and in one case a single operator monitored up to 100 CCTV-linked screens at a time.
In Philadelphia, for example, surveillance photos helped solve a baffling slaying. Grainy images of the suspect in that case emerged from cameras mounted on a government building and a nearby shopping mall.
Such examples proliferate. And that proliferation, in part, helps fuel the cheerleaders for camera expansion. Some of those cheerleaders have a strong financial interest in the technology’s success. Others are simply too eager to deploy any tool that might clear up a case or two.
5. Identify Suspected Criminals
While most people appreciate the added layer of security that cameras provide, there are those who oppose it. Some cheerleaders are motivated by old-fashioned self-interest – police are only too pleased to have extra surveillance tools at their disposal, and manufacturers of the technology that powers security cameras have a strong incentive to exaggerate or emphasize camera “successes.”
Other critics point to long-standing precedent in which marginalized groups have been subjected to highly intrusive surveillance with the predictable consequences of stigmatization, harassment, and self-fulfilling prophecies. In the context of 21st-century warfare on terror, sociologist Paddy Hillyard argues that such targeted surveillance targeting suspect communities should be balanced against the benefits of enhanced safety for all citizens. In the end, though, it’s up to each individual to decide if they’re willing to accept the cost of being watched.