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Should Surveillance Cameras Detect Criminals, or Deter Crime

Dec 20, 20077 mins
Data and Information SecurityPhysical Security

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

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 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.

But less than three months later, spam had surged to an all-time high. What’s more, the spammers who filled the void left by Soloway learned from his mistakes and developed new strategies and techniques to avoid his fate. The arrest had zero positive impact on the fight against spam.

Too Many Surfaces to Paint

Likewise, there’s simply too much opportunity—too many surfaces to paint—for one arrest to make any significant impact on tagging. New taggers arrive to take the place of busted taggers, and they find new walls to deface. And, like the spammers, they will be better at what they do and will be better at avoiding detection. (If this last point seems dubious, check out sites like or where graffiti artists share intelligence on tagging spots and techniques, circulate legislative petitions on issues that affect them, and celebrate their craft.)

It can be argued that detection is actually counterproductive. The thief must be tried and put on probation. A tagger convicted in Boston last summer was fined $10,000 and had his license revoked, reducing his job prospects and increasing the likelihood he will need public assistance, use bad credit, resort to more crime or end up in jail, which also costs money.

Most confounding of all, detection, by definition, must allow the crime to start taking place. Otherwise there’s nothing to detect. Hidden cameras still allow paint to get on the wall, which happens to be by far the most expensive aspect of the graffiti problem—the cleanup. An average city spends about $2 per citizen yearly whitewashing graffiti; nationwide, yearly graffiti cleanup costs may be as high as $12 billion, according to Justice Department statistics reported by—a partnership between the nonprofit Keep America Beautiful and The Sherwin Williams Company, which makes Krylon spray paints.

Deterrence—creating an environment that’s inhospitable to the criminal act in the first place—on the other hand is a smarter, more efficient strategy than catching bad guys. If a detected tagger still leaves cleanup behind, a deterred tagger reduces cleanup costs to zero.

In fact, studies show that the most effective deterrent to tagging is immediate removal of new graffiti. If a city or town consistently removes graffiti within 24 to 48 hours of its application, repeat incidents at those spots approach zero.

This seems to indicate the money spent on hidden cameras could be put to better use developing graffiti SWAT teams that would swoop in and remove tags almost as soon as they dried.

When not cleaning up graffiti, the SWAT teams could perform precleaning—a systematic program of identifying the most likely targets for tagging and creating a deterrent by making them graffiti-unfriendly.

Engineering the Environment

A discipline exists called CPTED—criminal prevention through environmental design—under which studies have shown that space can be engineered to reduce the likelihood of criminal activity. A tagger who knows he’s being watched or who is made to feel exposed to detection through good lighting, signage or other methods is less likely to start tagging in the first place. Simply making surfaces darker or variegated, or covering them with coatings that alter surface lubricity so that they don’t take paint well also will reduce tagging.

In addition, taggers who are caught (you will never 100 percent deter a crime; it’s always about risk reduction, not risk elimination) could be spared large fines and jail time—penalties that do nothing to reduce graffiti and drain other resources. Instead, a more efficient penalty is to employ the busted tagger as part of a cleanup team. (Some judges already make graffiti artists clean up their own work.)

Legalization is a valid, though controversial, deterrence technique. Some states have tried setting up legally taggable zones and have experienced varying degrees of success.

There are any number of ways to deter vandalism, and they all entail significant costs—not only for cleanup but also for the strategic planning and precleaning. Up front, it would cost more than a network of hidden cameras. Still, deterrence eliminates costs that hidden cameras can’t. (Remember that cameras carry operational costs, including maintenance and deployment. In fact, the vendor suggests moving them every few days to avoid weather or detection that leads to damage or destruction.) But cleanup costs exist either way. A deterrence approach has the potential to reduce future costs in a way that detection does not.

Spam’s the Same

It’s interesting to note that the SWAT approach already exists, loosely, in the world of spam and malware. Teams of researchers share intelligence and are constantly tracking down new spam techniques and distribution servers, trying to get them shut off and taken down as soon as possible. But the effectiveness of these SWAT teams is best characterized as uneven. Unfortunately, online there are infinitely more “surfaces” to tag and it costs far less to do it. Other forms of deterrence—caps on mail volume, virtual postage, time-controlled release of mass mailings—have been discussed, but few have been implemented.

If deterrence is a more efficient strategy to pursue, why is detection so popular? We are deploying more cameras than ever (visible cameras do provide some deterrence value; how much is hard to measure and their primary purpose, experts say, is still detection and forensics). Online, detection technologies like IDS, antivirus and antispam filters dominate security investments, while deterrence techniques lag.

Unfortunately, deterrence methods are more complicated to understand and execute than detection. What’s easier: pointing hidden cameras at walls and waiting for text messages, or evaluating spaces by risk level and applying the right mix of techniques to stop and clean up graffiti?

Also, deterrence, it can be argued, is less psychologically satisfying than detection. Especially in the current security climate, the punitive instinct seems somehow more pleasing. We’re human. We like crime and punishment. We can’t really relate to prevention and rehabilitation.

Which explains why graffiti and spam are so out of control in the first place. Maybe it’s time to spend less pursuing the criminal and more pursuing the crime.

Send feedback to Executive Editor Scott Berinato