When I leave for work in the morning I’ll walk the 100 yards down the road to the train station. On the way I’ll pass at least 3 CCTV cameras including one that points up my street. While there are more in the station, even more on the trains, the underground, the streets at the other end and, yes, even inside my workplace, it is the ones in public spaces that I want to address today.

Items like CCTV cameras are a highly vivid example of flawed cost benefit analysis in which the costs aren’t fully investigated and the realisation, or otherwise, of benefits is not published.

The costs of living under frequent surveillance in public spaces is not factored into the purchasing decisions for CCTV systems. The chilling effects are far from understood – especially when combined with recent revelations about government data interception and topical discussions on CCTV images being combined with databases of facial images allowing for potential wide-scale image recognition.

While the above risks are hard to quantify, what should be much easier is to work out whether the money being spent to install and maintain such systems is providing the expected benefits outlined in the original purchasing business cases.

I suspect that the reality is that some CCTV installations have led to a number of successful prosecutions or reduction of criminal incidents but others, such as the ones in my street, which is a low-crime area, have had little, if any, effect.

I reject the notion that the vast majority of law abiding citizens should accept everyday surveillance on the chance of a low probability crime occurring.

This is why I view the consultation of the CCTV code of practice as deeply flawed. The consultation questions, in and of themselves, are very good. For operators of CCTV systems they provide a reasonably comprehensive set of good practice guidelines.

However, they start their approach of the process in the wrong place. CCTV guidelines from the Information Commissioner’s Office should cover the entire lifetime of the proposed CCTV service.

They should include, at a minimum, the following:

  • A requirement that all CCTV cameras covering public spaces are accompanied by a highly visible sign indicating which organisation they belong to and how to contact them
  • A public database of all public sector organisations that manage CCTV cameras falling into the above category. This database should contain:
    • FOI contact details for the organisation
    • The annual cost of the system
    • The original and subsequent business cases for the system
    • The proposed system review date – see below
  • Again for public sector organisations a performance platform should be created, similar to the one provided by GOV.UK, on which measurement of the actual values of the benefit KPIs detailed in the business case, such as crime reduction levels, are plotted against targets

I propose that the guidelines be suitably expanded so that for public organisations they:

  • Provide a recommended KPI baseline for a business case for a potential CCTV system. I.e. that specified minimum levels of change in a subset of supplied performance criteria must be aimed to be achieved for an enumerated level of cost.
  • Suggest a periodic review by the budget holders of the system, for example every two years, to see whether the system is in fact delivering value for money by achieving the planned benefits, with an assumption that the system will be removed if it is not. These reviews should be publicly published.
  • Include provisions that citizens living in the public areas covered by the system are invited to participate in the review.

It is my belief that CCTV should be considered to have a negative value in a public place unless proven otherwise. This is due partly to the chilling effects I mentioned above but also to the high costs associated with them, both in terms of initial outlay and service support.  The money spent on such services could alternatively be spent on other resources attempting to address the same issues, such as expanded community policing, which has a long history of showing significant public benefit.