Public space CCTV: research findings

This report presents findings from a mixed methods research project commissioned to better understand the provision and use of public space CCTV in Scotland.

2. Introduction

2.1 Context

In 2022, the Scottish Government commissioned a study of public space closed circuit television (CCTV) in Scotland, which aimed to update baseline evidence of the provision of public space CCTV in Scotland. The study was undertaken by a team of researchers from the University of Glasgow and the University of Edinburgh, with guidance from a Research Advisory Group consisting of key stakeholders in public space CCTV in Scotland.

The study sought to answer the following research questions:

  • What is the current provision of public space CCTV in Scotland and how, and for what purposes do Local Authorities and Police Scotland use public space CCTV?
  • How do communities across Scotland perceive the use, effectiveness, and value of public space CCTV in their local communities?
  • What is the provision, delivery, operation, and maintenance of public space CCTV like in similar jurisdictions, and how does this compare with Scotland?

The project involved an in-depth, mixed methods approach to better understand the current provision and use of public space CCTV across Scotland, to assess the perceived use and value of public space CCTV in local communities, and to make international comparisons. The research was limited to local authorities and Police Scotland, as well as other groups including community safety partnership staff, and members of the public/users of public space. Courts and tribunals, though relevant, are of a different research focus and were not included in the research.

2.2 Definitions

A concept as broad as ‘public space’ is difficult to define and subject to debate (Li et al., 2022) but for this study, we sought an inclusive and dynamic definition which acknowledges the ways in which public space CCTV may be changing in terms of ownership, partnerships, hybrid arrangements, and other forms of fragmentation. In line with the definition used in the UK Department for Communities and Local Government’s Living Places: Caring for Quality report, the study uses the following definition:

‘[a]ll those parts of the built environment where the public has free access…[encompassing] all streets, squares and other rights of way, whether predominantly in residential, commercial or community/civic uses; the open spaces and parks; and the ‘public/private’ spaces where public access is unrestricted (at least during daylight hours). It includes the interfaces with key internal and private spaces to which the public normally has free access’ (Carmona et al., 2004: 10).

The report defines public space closed circuit television (CCTV) in line with the 2011 National Strategy for Public Space CCTV in Scotland, as those systems utilised on the public streets and areas across Scotland and include fixed sites as well as non-fixed and rapid deployable CCTV vehicles (Scottish Government, 2011). Such public space CCTV systems are operated and maintained by local authorities and Police Scotland working in partnership and are supported by the Scottish Government through joint funding.

2.3 Background

Public space CCTV has been a feature in the UK since it was first trialled in 1975 (Burrows, 1978; Hall et al, 1979). Its use and growth have historically been rooted in crime prevention as a situational deterrent, with the idea that if someone were to recognise the presence of CCTV in public space, they would either be less likely to commit an offence or assume that the risk of being caught would increase (Ariel et al., 2017; Ratcliffe and Groff, 2019; Cerezo, 2013). However, the impact of public space CCTV on crime rates is questionable and context-dependent (Piza et al., 2019). Part of the issue is that it is difficult to determine the impact of CCTV in communities in isolation from other community safety measures.

The exact number of public space CCTV cameras currently in use across the UK is subject to debate. This difficulty in quantification is due to irregularities and/or ambiguities in spatial boundaries, ICO registration issues and system ownership. One commercial security systems company, however, estimates that there are now over 7.3 million public and private CCTV cameras across the UK (see Clarion Security Systems, 2022).

Regardless of the precise number, it is clear that the presence and use of public space CCTV across the UK have given rise to a new generation of CCTV technologies beyond the traditional fixed analogue camera which is now supplemented, and in many cases, replaced by digital cameras, portable and rapidly deployable cameras, CCTV vehicles, automated number plate recognition (ANPR), higher resolution video, 5G connections, and other sensors (Surette, 2005; Skogan, 2019). These new types of CCTV technology are designed to monitor dynamic environments such as motorways, airports, harbours, and large urban centres, as public space CCTV usage is also used as a tool to counter national security threats (Palace et al., 2023). There are also emerging forms of video analytics and artificial intelligence used for automatically detecting ‘unusual’ or unauthorised behaviours in public spaces (Senior, 2009; Leslie, 2020). However, automatic facial recognition and other learning or predictive tools used for CCTV present ongoing issues with function creep, bias, and accuracy (Surette, 2005; Mahmood et al., 2017; Leslie, 2020).

The use of public space CCTV is part of broader debates about the balance between privacy and safety, as well as what groups of people benefit from or are unequally impacted by public space surveillance practices (Smith, 2015; Miles, 2021). These complex issues have informed the design of this study, to frame public space CCTV as a complex network of people and objectives.

Beyond the active use of public space CCTV across the UK for monitoring community safety, it has also had extensive use as an investigative tool for police and in court. Furthermore, footage from public space CCTV is frequently used in non-criminal enquiries, including missing and vulnerable persons cases and traffic incidents.

Public space CCTV is now used to monitor antisocial behaviour, encourage the upkeep of order, environmental maintenance, public reassurance, national security, direct police resources, intelligence gathering, and for providing evidence in criminal prosecutions, though its impact is still often measured in terms of crime statistics (Webster, 2009). Some researchers have argued that this widening use/purpose of CCTV has implications in practice in terms of ‘function creep’ as the remits of what constitutes community safety are not always clear. For example, there is a difference between tracking someone for the purposes of security provision (e.g. someone displays suspicious behaviour) and for the abuse of power (increased surveillance of someone who is known to CCTV operatives) (Smith, 2015; Webster, 2009).

In terms of the wider policy context, this study took place amidst ongoing policy developments around criminal justice and surveillance biometrics at national and devolved levels of government in the UK and Scotland. Parliamentary reforms are underway in readressing the role and scope of the UK Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner (BSCC) and Information Commissioner Office (ICO). The BSCC is an independent body of the UK Home Office, responsible for encouraging compliance with the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice (see Home Office, 2013). The new UK Data Protection and Information Bill, according to Sampson (2023), could potentially ‘scrap’ the code of practice.

Scotland currently has no equivalent to the BSCC, nor is there a Scottish Surveillance Code of Practice. Scotland established a Scottish Biometrics Commissioner in 2020, however, the organisation's focus is specifically on the ethical and lawful handling of biometric data for criminal justice and police purposes[1], and does not cover public space CCTV.The primary legislation governing Public Space CCTV in Scotland is the 2018 Data Protection Act. The ICO is the responsible body for overseeing the installation and registry of public space CCTV cameras. However, with the new UK Data Protection and Information Bill being currently negotiated in Parliament, the role of the ICO may change.

2.4 Public Space CCTV in Scotland

Public space CCTV was first introduced in Scotland in the 1990s, with some of the first cameras installed experimentally in the city centre of Glasgow (see Ditton, 2000). By 2009, the number of public space CCTV cameras in Scotland exceeded 2,200 (Bannister et al., 2009). The development, management and operation of public space CCTV in Scotland, including compliance with legislation, is a matter for local authorities and the police, often in partnership. This position is set out in the 2011 National Strategy for Public Space CCTV in Scotland, which acts as the overarching guideline for the use and provision of public space CCTV in Scotland (see Scottish Government, 2011).

Previous research on the use of public space CCTV in Scotland (see Bannister et al., 2009) indicates evidence of good practice across the country, but that public space CCTV in Scotland is a ‘disjointed landscape’ that requires more structure, investment, efficacy, and community input (Scottish Government, 2011: 4).

Ongoing challenges to public space CCTV provision in Scotland have been identified in the intervening years, including in research commissioned by the Scottish Community Safety Network (SCSN) in 2019. The SCSN (2019) research found that many stakeholders involved in Scotland’s public space CCTV landscape felt that the 2011 National Strategy was slightly outdated and more than half of the respondents that engaged with the study felt that there was no unified vision for the future of public space CCTV but agreed that there should be one.

2.5 Conclusion

It is evident that changes in the scope, technology and uses of public space CCTV require rigorous scrutiny alongside evidence of how it is used and what it is being used for. As technology evolves and the use of public space CCTV expands, it is timely to consider the current operation, management, maintenance, and funding of these systems.



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