Closed-Circuit Television Essay

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Closed-circuit television (CCTV) is the term given to describe a system of remotely located video cameras positioned across a particular space, such as a around a building or on city streets. These cameras are linked, as the name suggests, to a closed circuit as opposed to an open transmission through which television is broadcast. CCTV allows for a number of camera images to be transmitted to and accessed by a limited set of monitors, quite often situated within one control room. The images that are captured can be viewed in real time and can also be auto-recorded.

CCTV was first used in the 1940s and was tried in a public space for the first time in the 1980s. Since then, and following major technological advances in the 1990s, its presence has become widespread. Although it has many uses, CCTV is predominantly employed for the purposes of preventing and detecting crime. CCTV cameras are therefore commonly found in public spaces, which are often monitored by local authorities or the police force. This allows for proactive policing of selected areas and affords documentary evidence of events as they occur and also retrospectively, when recordings can be revisited. CCTV images can therefore inform mobilization of ground personnel and be used to corroborate witness testimony.

CCTV is extremely useful given its technical capabilities and the possibilities these promise, especially when resources are in short supply. CCTV systems can simultaneously cover multiple areas and greater expanses of space than ground personnel and indeed require fewer personnel to operate them than would be deployed across the same space on the ground. Therefore, CCTV systems can appear to be more cost-effective than traditional methods of policing. Nevertheless, despite being deemed an efficient resource, attitudes to CCTV vary. While CCTV ostensibly provides an increased field of vision for the purposes of improving and maintaining order, safety, and security, and might even discourage crime, the ethical issues its use gives rise to are a concern of both the general public and academics alike.

The general public is now routinely subjected to CCTV as part of everyday surveillance activities that are undertaken by local authorities and agents of crime in public spaces, as well as in private spaces managed by independent companies (e.g., shopping malls or parking garages). Public attention is typically drawn to the presence of a CCTV system via prominent signage, and automatic consent to CCTV surveillance is implied. Where CCTV is used proactively, pre-emotively, its application is universal, regardless of wrongdoing. This, especially for surveillance scholars, is problematic because CCTV use essentially compromises an individual’s right to privacy and amounts to an excessive form of social control, an exertion of power where there is not sufficient suspicion or fact to justify it. Moreover, because CCTV monitoring is not well regulated, indeed not necessarily licensed, very little is known or can be done about potentially discriminatory CCTV practices, that is, subjective practices that might target particular individuals or groups. Discourses of surveillance therefore center on the prospective harms that are considered to outweigh the benefits or objectivity that proponents of CCTV pledge. These discourses are compelling when the sum effectiveness of CCTV remains unknown.

Nevertheless, it seems that there is relatively modest public resistance to CCTV systems. A camera’s presence can arguably reduce the fear of crime, instead assuring a form of care to would be victims; however, conversely, it can frighten people, alerting them to the possibility or even a probability of crime in the proximity, thus increasing fear, perhaps unnecessarily. However, when CCTV has been used to secure criminal justice in high-profile cases, public support tends to increase. In addition, its use in prisons and custody suites is generally seen as acceptable.

Therefore, on balance, CCTV and its prevalence is by and large regarded as unproblematic in everyday contexts where it appears to be used in direct relation to criminal justice. In addition, where police might support the use of CCTV on an operational level, which could be perceived as bias, its use can actually be interpreted as an assertion of transparency. CCTV is not prejudiced against suspects when they are apprehended by personnel on the ground, but rather can equally view and record inappropriate or excessive actions on the parts of those personnel and may act as a deterrent to such actions.

The actions of individuals on the ground, whether they are suspects or police personnel, however, are not the only concern for criminal justice ethics that pertain to CCTV. While CCTV can technically operate as a system of static, mechanical devices that merely record, the reality is that many CCTV systems are more sophisticated. They have pan, tilt, zoom, and sometimes audio functions, which are operated by individuals employed in CCTV control rooms. Although workplace rules and regulations, standard operating procedures, and local laws can be invoked as a safeguard where they exist, they cannot account for the personal values that CCTV operators bring to their jobs or how they choose to exercise their discretion in monitoring people captured on CCTV.


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  4. Goold, B. CCTV and Policing: Public Area Surveillance and Police Practices in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
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  6. Morgan, H. M. “Regulating CCTV?: We Can’t Solve Problems by Using the Same Kind of Thinking We Used When We Created Them.” Critical Criminology (2013). (Accessed August 2013).
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  9. Smith, G. J. D. “Behind the Scenes: Examining Constructions of Deviance and Informal Practices Among CCTV Control Room Operators in the UK.” Surveillance and Society, v.2/2–3 (2004).

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