Should Surveillance Cameras Detect Criminals, or Deter Crime

In the real world (with graffiti) and online (with spam), arrest and conviction don't always equal effective security

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At the ASIS show last month in Las Vegas, among booths where vendors hocked everything from locks to tasers to bomb-sniffing dogs was a booth for a vendor selling Graffiti Cam. The portable, covert surveillance camera detects “graffiti-related motion,” snaps pictures and e-mails them to the police as it sends text messages to their cell phones that say, essentially, “Hey, get down here.” All the while, it collects TV-quality video on a tamper-resistant, encrypted memory card.

At only $5,000 per camera, Graffiti Cam seems like a home run. It arrives at a time when public surveillance has gained tacit, creeping acceptance and when graffiti has become a $12 billion migraine for cities and towns—a kind of aerosol spam that they desperately want to scotch because it’s bad for business. Social scientists call this the broken windows theory: Vandalism leads people to sense a place is unsafe and broken down, so they leave, which in turn makes the place actually become unsafe and broken down. Reality follows perception.

So it won’t be surprising if cities and towns buy dozens of Graffiti Cams. And those cameras will likely lead to a surge in arrests and convictions of the spray-paint-wielding set, known in current slang as taggers.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that arrest and conviction of those taggers will actually reduce tagging.

Why? Because Graffiti Cam is a detection mechanism, and while detection is good for stopping criminals, it’s not terribly good at stopping crime, especially when the crime in question is one where opportunity is virtually ubiquitous, like vandalism.

Or spam, which provides a nice analogy to graffiti. When notorious accused spammer Robert Soloway was arrested last summer, some good guys suggested that other spammers would now think twice before going into the mass e-mail business, and that consumers could see a noticeable decrease in their junk e-mail.

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