Monday, January 18, 2010

Cameras in cabs ineffective, expert says

From the Whig-Standard Online:

When Aaron Doyle arrived in Kingston last week for a conference on closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance in Kingston, he was immediately presented with a tough audience for his argument that taxi cameras don't protect drivers: a Kingston cabbie.

Doyle is a Carleton University criminologist who has been part of a team evaluating how such cameras are being used in Ottawa, their privacy implications and their effectiveness.

On his way downtown, he told the driver briefly about his research, and the next thing he knew the cabbie was taking him slowly down the street where driver David Krick was murdered last year and hotly arguing in favour of the tiny in-car cameras that some city cabs carry.

"We drove past where it happened, on a street not far from here, and the driver pointed out where it happened and he was asking me, 'How could you argue against these cameras?' " Doyle recalled.

"It was a very interesting conversation, to say the least."

But like other experts at the Camera Surveillance In Canada workshop, held by the university's Surveillance Studies Centre and partially underwritten by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, he argued such cameras are a knee-jerk response to crime that people think should be effective, and which divert money and attention from more effective strategies.

In the case of cab cameras, Doyle noted that there has been no study out of any city that uses them showing that crime against cabbies falls when they are installed or that they act as a deterrent when passengers know they are being watched.

Taxi drivers -- whose working conditions involve working alone with their backs to often-intoxicated strangers and who regularly travel to isolated areas while carrying cash after dark -- face 20 times the amount of violence that an ordinary citizen does and are four times as likely to be murdered on the job as a police officer.

While it seems logical that no one in their right mind would attack a cab driver in front of a camera, Doyle noted the problem is that no one in their right mind would attack a taxi driver, period.

He noted the argument for cameras assumes potential criminals have thought things though first and are not desperate for cash, mentally ill or drunk or stoned -- all big ifs when it comes to the kind of people who think armed robbery of taxi drivers is a good idea.

"You would have to be a fool to assault a driver in front of a camera, but put bluntly, you'd have to be acting pretty foolishly to attack a driver in the first place."

The cameras are often aggressively marketed to cities and cab companies by the companies who sell them. Often they are marketed with little consultation with drivers, who face a four-figure bill for installing them and who fear they could be used by their supervisors to spy on them and discipline them for minor infractions, all issues in Ottawa.

And Doyle noted the public, on whom the cameras are trained, are not consulted at all, even though a legitimate fear is that videotaped drunken escapades in the back seat could wind up on the Internet in the manner of shows likeTaxi Cab Confessions.

Doyle's experience with the cabbie cam is not unusual as people generally believe that surveillance cameras are more effective than they are and record everything, even though in a typical multi-cam array, only a few seconds of data are saved each minute in order to conserve storage space.

Danielle Dawson, a master's candidate in sociology at Queen's University, presented the findings of a multi-national survey that found the majority of people believe the cameras are effective.

And although people don't know much about how they are actually used, most also believe they have a sophisticated understanding of such cameras' use and capabilities.

"People feel that they are experts in it because of what they have seen on the media," she said, pointing to CCTV crime footage aired on the news and shows likeCopsorBig Brother.

"[These shows] hype up the capability of CCTV and contribute to why people think CCTV is so effective."

Dawson also noted that while the overwhelming majority of people believe cameras deter crime even though there is no evidence to support that belief, people also don't want that supposed crime-fighting capability looking at where they live, according to the survey.

"Even the people who believe that CCTV is effective don't want it being used in their neighbourghoods," she said.

Copyright © 2010 The Whig Standard

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