Contemporary Use in the United States

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Commercial and Private Use

Public video surveillance for commercial and private purposes is not a recent phenomenon. The private sector began using CCTV surveillance in banks in the early 1960s, as mandated by federal law, and later in commercial buildings. By the 1970s, CCTV surveillance was also in use in hospitals, all-night convenience stores, art galleries, and in many other commercial locations. Video technology at the time was limited to passively record events, with little or no means for remote active monitoring. On many occasions, police officials were unable to use remote video cameras images to prosecute criminals because quick movements by the criminals resulted in blurred pictures.

Video technology improved during the mid-1980s with the introduction of camcorder technology, and in the 1990s with digital and multiflexer technology. These powerful new advances in video technology extend its range and law enforcement/surveillance applications. Video cameras have powerful zoom lenses which can tilt and pan to offer a 360-degree coverage. They also are able to gather sharp, clear images in extremely low light. Moreover, new digital video technology requires less labor intensive monitoring. Digital video surveillance cameras can link computer data processing power with sensor or motion detectors to filter out unrelated activities. Such systems can search through a video database of events, allowing the user to isolate only those details in which a particular image occurs. This technology helps police with criminal investigations in order to solve crimes. An executive for a major security firm contends that, “new surveillance cameras document indisputable events with incredibly high resolution.”41

Many businesses in the United States have invested heavily in the new video surveillance technology to protect products and to promote safe workplace and consumer environments. A recent nationwide survey of a wide variety of companies found that 75 percent utilize CCTV surveillance.Private sector CCTV surveillance technology is operated in a wide variety of industries: industry/manufacturing, retailing, financial/insurance/banking, transportation and distribution, utilities/communications, health care, and hotels/motels.

The popularity of CCTV security systems has not gone unnoticed by the manufacturers of camera surveillance systems. Commercial sales of CCTV camera surveillance equipment in 1995 reached record levels. A leading CCTV manufacturer reported net earnings of $120 million in 1995, compared with net earnings of $16 million the previous year.According to one security official, American businesses are now spending nearly $100 billion a year on high security products and equipment to help counter $200 billion in annual losses due to crime Over 50 percent of all CCTV surveillance equipment sales are to industrial and commercial clients.

CCTV surveillance is also very common in the American workplace. According to the publisher of Privacy Journal, an employer, manager, board member, or supervisor can legally videotape employees with hidden cameras if they suspect wrongdoing. CCTV surveillance is one of 5 legally approved methods to observe suspected employees. Businesses also rely on CCTV video surveillance to detect sexual harassment in the workplace and to observe employees outside the workplace who may be involved in medical malpractice or worker compensation lawsuits. Some research suggests that American workers feel safer in the presence of security camera equipment.

Events such as the World Trade Center bombing, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the closure of Pennsylvania Avenue at the White House have raised public concerns about security. This in turn has made the video surveillance industry more acceptable to the general public. A leading security industry spokesperson asserts, “years ago shoppers objected to electronic eyes recording their moves; today it’s not only accepted, it’s preferred.

A 1995 study asked armed convenience store robbers serving time in Washington state prisons to rank the most important factors that would deter them from robbing a convenience store. Their answers were compared to responses given 10 years earlier by a different group of robbers As shown in Table 1, video recording or camera systems were of little consequence to the robbers.

Table 1
Least To Most Important Deterrent In Robbing A Convenient Store (* Washington State prison sample of robbers)
FactorRank Order 1985Rank Order 1995
Amount of Money12
Escape Route21
Active Police Patrol54
Armed Clerk65
Number of Clerks77
Number of Customers89
Camera System910
Alarm System108
Video Recording1111
Source: Rosemary Erickson, Athena Research Corp., 1995

In contrast, a 1991 nationwide study of CCTV surveillance in convenience stores showed promising results in deterring robberies. A sample of 81 stores were studied for 1 year before and 1 year after the installation of state-of-the-art CCTV camera surveillance systems. The number of robberies decreased by 53 percent after the first year.Longer term data is needed for a full evaluation.

A study conducted in Long Island, New York, found that serious crimes, except rape, dropped after CCTV surveillance systems were installed by businesses and homeowners in 1993. There were 8,000 burglaries reported in Long Island in 1994, compared to about 15,000 in 1975. There were also fewer robberies in 1994 than in 1975. Although other factors such as changing demographics and community policing had some impact on the drop in robberies and burglaries, according to one criminologist, “Long Island is almost like a fortress, and security firms have had a tremendous impact on crime in this area.”