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When the Criminals Control the Cameras

James Corbett
The Corbett Report
10 March, 2011



TRANSCRIPT: Welcome. This is James Corbett of with the last word on CCTV.

It wasn’t long after the introduction of the television camera that those in positions of power began using it to track and surveil the public.

The first closed-circuit television camera was deployed by Siemens AG – a company that sponsored, funded and collaborated with the Nazi regime– so the Nazis could monitor rocket launches from the safety of a distant bunker. Within seven years the first commercial CCTV cameras were available in the US. Advertisements for the systems were at pains to point out they required no government permit to operate. That claim in itself is interesting.

It’s difficult for us in this age of pervasive surveillance technology to appreciate just how thoroughly these technologies have altered our sense of the public and private spheres. Today Google can send Street View vans around the streets of our cities, snapping up pictures and wi-fi data alike, or the average person can share their most intimate details with social network “friends” who they’ve never even met. Now, with services likeGoogle Latitude you can even allow these “friends” to track the precise GPS coordinates of your cell phone in real time. But 60 years ago, would-be purchasers of CCTV cameras had to be reassured that they didn’t need a special permit from the government to monitor their own property.

The difference between the 1940s understanding of the value of privacy and our current blase attitude toward electronic snooping is perhaps best illustrated by 1984. In this classic dystopic vision, Orwell lays bare the potential horrors of a total surveillance society. Citizens’ every movements are tracked and they are never out of sight of the all-seeing, all-hearing telescreens. When someone is acting out of line the telescreen can even bark commands at them.

Today CCTV cameras are ubiquitous, with Londoners estimated to be caught on camera 300 times a day.

CCTV cameras in England are now being equipped with loud speakers so that “anti-social behaviour” can be rebuked in a child’s voice.

CCTV cameras are now routinely equipped with microphones and are admittedly used by law enforcement to listen in on conversations.

IBM, another company whose German branch actively collaborated with the Nazis in World War II, is developing behaviour-monitoring cameras tied to A.I. Computers that scan crowds for signs of “terrorist” behaviour.

Wal-Marts and other retailers across the US are showing televised messages from the head of Homeland Security urging Americans to spy on their fellow shoppers.

And now the federal government is announcing it is ready to test technology that has been quietly installed in the back door of every broadcaster in the U.S. allowing the President to interrupt all radio and TV broadcasts at any time.

In the 1940s, this was a nightmare vision of a totalitarian future. In 2011, it’s our mundane reality.

Of course this tyranny, like every tyranny, has come cloaked in the mantle of security. The cameras, we are told, are there to keep us safe. They help solve crimes, say the mouthpieces of the technological control grid. When their presence is conspicuous, they say, they can even prevent crimes. Both claims are demonstrably false.

2003 study in the Injury Prevention Journal concluded that there was no evidence that CCTV cameras have any effect whatsoever in deterring violent crimes.

2007 report from Britain’s own Home Office admitted that many CCTV cameras that had been installed to “monitor crime” have since been repositioned to serve solely as traffic cameras and record the license plates of passing cars.

Data obtained from the British government under a Freedom of Information Act request in 2007 showed that of the five London boroughs with the highest concentration of CCTV cameras, four of them actually had a below-average rate of apprehending criminals, whereas Sutton, one of the least CCTV-laden areas, had a well above-average apprehension rate.

2009 meta-analysis of 41 CCTV studies concluded that CCTV had no substantial impact on crime in the UK despite the globally unprecedented 500 million pounds that local city councils had sunk into the spy cameras in the previous decade.

These and many other studies all point to the falsity of the claims that the CCTV cameras are there for our protection. Time after time, when the facts and figures are analyzed, they show that CCTV has almost no effect in preventing or solving crimes. In the face of this evidence, it becomes all the more perplexing that CCTV surveillance has not only not been abandoned and discredited as a failed technology, but that country after country is following the UK’s big brother lead and deploying more and more CCTV cameras on the streets of their cities.

This seeming paradox, like so many others, can be partially answered by the profit motive. Since the mid-1990s, UK CCTV surveillance has become a billion dollar industry. If that success can be repeated in other “markets” then the rich and well-connected stand to make a windfall from whipping the public into a crime wave hysteria and then offering the cameras as a solution.

But there is something more fundamentally troubling about this entire CCTV surveillance grid than mere hucksterism. It is the question of trust in the so-called authorities who are controlling and monitoring the systems. Not just the trust in those currently in charge of the system, but in anyone who will ever control these systems, that they will never abuse this technology or use it for their own ends.

The question of trust can be stated simply: What happens if the criminals are in charge of the cameras?

On the morning of the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995, there were at least a dozen CCTV cameras in the direct vicinity of the Alfred P. Murrah Building that recorded the approach of the Ryder truck or captured it being parked in front of the building. A source involved in the investigation told the L.A. Times that two of the cameras showed the explosion itself and that two of them showed McVeigh exiting the truck. Yet this slam dunk evidence, evidence that would have made the conviction of McVeigh an open-and-shut case, was never produced in court. It was never shown to a jury. To this day, no member of the public has ever been allowed to see this video. Instead, it and the other surveillance tapes from the area were confiscated and classified by the FBI in the name of national security. But why?

According to the L.A Times’ source, the footage also shows a second man emerging from the cab of the Ryder truck minutes after McVeigh walked away. This man, in a baseball cap with a flame design, answered to the description of John Doe No. 2, the mysterious second suspect who has been identified by dozens of eyewitnesses, but who the FBI, after having released a composite sketch of him, now claims never existed.

A Utah-based attorney named Jesse Trentadue finally managed to sue the government for some of the CCTV tapes from the area. He was ultimately able to secure 30 different surveillance tapes, 4 of which would have had clear views of the Ryder truck’s approach that morning. All four of those tapes go blank in the minutes leading up to the bombing, precisely as the truck was passing by. The official explanation: all of the tapes, every single one of them, were being “changed” at the precise moment that the truck was passing.

The tapes of the explosion and of John Doe No. 2 have still never been released. The tapes from the CCTV cameras on the Murrah Building itself, cameras whose footage was being stored off-site and thus were not destroyed in the blast, have never been acknowledged to exist.

The story of the CCTV footage in the London Underground on 7/7 is equally unbelievable.

Just days after the bombing, Andy Trotter, the deputy chief constable of British Transport Police, bragged about the CCTV network in the Underground, claiming that there would be an intense investigation to sort through the images and identify the bombers. As it turned out, the police didn’t have much to look at after all.

Of the 76 cameras at King’s Cross that morning, 75 were malfunctioning during the 20 minute period which was coincidentally the exact period when the four alleged bombers were passing through the station.

Luckily for investigators, the one camera that was working in the Thameslink tunnel managed to capture an image of the four accused walking two-by-two. We are told that this image is so startling that the police officer who first saw it immediately identified them as the bombers.

Amazingly, this is the last image of three of the four men. There are no images of the supposed bombers buying their tickets for their supposed suicide bombing journey. No images of any of them boarding the trains. No images of them on the trains, despite the availability of CCTV from the trains.

The movements of the bus bomber, Hasib Hussain, are equally amazing. We are told that he entered a McDonald’s to insert a fresh 9V battery into his explosives, but there is no footage of this. The manager turned off the shop’s cameras before he entered.

He is alleged to have taken a number 91 bus along the Euston Road, but there is no footage from the camera on the bus. The Inspector in charge of the case can no longer even remember why the police were unable to find or use the footage from the bus’ cameras. They are simply unavailable.

He is alleged to have boarded the number 30 bus at Euston Station, the bus on which he is alleged to have activated his explosives, but there is no footage of this. The cameras on this bus were malfunctioning, too, and hadn’t recorded anything since the previous year.

Again and again we find that the surveillance system that is there to “protect” the public has an uncanny ability to break down just as it is most needed. And even if every one of these malfunction coincidences were actually coincidences, the lesson is still plain: if the criminals control the cameras, they can cover up their own crimes.

The all-seeing eye of the surveillance state does not represent something of benefit to the public. Like any technology, the cameras themselves are neutral and can be used for good or bad. But if we sit idly by while the police state control grid is erected around us, we are ultimately putting into the hands of the authorities of this and every subsequent generation the responsibility of using these systems, and trusting that they will never abuse them.

But if history has taught us anything, it is that an overarching, central police “authority” is the last place we should put that trust.

For The Corbett Report in western Japan, I am James Corbett.

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