April 2, 2010 10:17AM

Insecurity Cameras

Nearly half of the security cameras in the New York City subway system don’t work. That may seem like cause for alarm, and it may be from a financial standpoint — NYC isn’t getting a lot of return on its investment.

From a broader security standpoint, I don’t find this particularly disturbing. As the article points out, crime is down as ridership increases. Reducing the number of police officers on patrol in the subway (as NYC is doing) is more likely to facilitate increased criminality. A camera can catch many things on film, but the presence of law enforcement officers provides intangible benefits that technology cannot. The would-be Millenium Bomber was stopped by a border patrol agent who interviewed him and thought that something was “hinky” about his behavior. That hinkiness involved explosives, and the plot was foiled. Cameras don’t spot “hinky” like people can.

Security expert Bruce Schneier has been talking about this on his blog (emphasis on the Dubai assassination), and provides a fuller discussion of security cameras in this article on CNN.com:

If universal surveillance were the answer, lots of us would have moved to the former East Germany. If surveillance cameras were the answer, camera-happy London, with something like 500,000 of them at a cost of $700 million, would be the safest city on the planet.

We didn't, and it isn't, because surveillance and surveillance cameras don't make us safer. The money spent on cameras in London, and in cities across America, could be much better spent on actual policing.

Security cameras have not proven a great deterrent to crime or terrorism. The attacks on September 11th and the London commuter bombings were not stopped by pre-attack footage of the perpetrators’ activities. Creating a surveillance state may make some people feel safer, but the resources can be better used elsewhere.