No More Cheap Shots!

Video surveillance is undergoing a digital revolution, yet the newspapers still show blurred pictures of unrecognizable supsects. Is the quality of your CCTV system a risk?

Have you seen one of those “Cops Seek Robbery Suspects” type news articles recently? The one I'm currently looking at contains a rather blurred picture of two unidentifiable people robbing a convenience store. There seems to be a picture like this in the newspaper of on television every week. The police want my help (OK, actually the help of any reader) in identifying the suspects.

It amazes me just how bad the pictures are. Typically the pictures are black and white, taken with a slightly out-of-focus video camera with poor contrast, and recorded on a grainy video tape which has seen better days if not better years. Often the angle is such that only the tops of people's heads are visible. Often I think that the suspect's own mother would have difficulty recognizing him.

It shouldn't be that way. And it needn't be that way.

The technology available for surveillance has gone digital. Just as the PVR (Personal Video Recorder) offers many more options than the VCR, digital video recording (DVR) offers many more options than the analog technology it replaces.

Cheap CMOS cameras can give high resolution color pictures, with auto-focus, and automatic aperture adjustment. The cameras are now cheap enough that the camera over the till (to detect internal theft) doesn't have to double as the only camera to deter or detect robbery. Cameras can now work down 0.01 lux and below.

Obvious cameras can be located to deter crime. Hidden cameras can be carefully placed to capture the faces of people entering and leaving the building.

With a DVR, surveillance pictures can now be recorded economically on hard disk. Panic buttons or alarms can switch instantly between recording one image every few seconds to recording in real time, or better still a constant buffer of the last few minutes recording can be maintained and saved if the panic alarm is activated. Archives of pictures taken every few seconds can be retained for weeks to catch criminals reconnoitring a location (when they are unlikely to be disguised) as well as during the robbery itself. Software motion detectors can raise alarms or eliminate pictures of "nothing happens here".

Remote monitoring via the internet is possible, making it feasible to have monitored systems in locations which wouldn't normally justify the cost of a monitor. Security guards can even use wireless handhelds to monitor security cameras.

Systems can be tied to cash registers or other activity, with cash register activity viewed as an overlay on the screen, enabling common types of cash register theft to be easily identified.

The technology has changed.

So don't wait until a blurred picture of your staff being robbed by blurred suspects features on the nightly news. Take a close look at your closed circuit television systems. Are cameras positioned in such a way that any suspects could be identified? Are they likely to catch criminals before or after they have removed a disguise? Are the pictures in focus and of sufficient resolution that suspects could be identified? Will glare from the sun, or reflections from light sources compromise picture quality. Is the recording digital or analog? Are any artefacts caused by digital compression acceptable? Are pictures being retained long enough to capture not just the crime itself, but any relevant activity in the days leading up to it?

If your system is not up to scratch then you have a vulnerability to add to your next risk analysis.

Remember that the purpose of your CCTV system is to deter and detect crime, not to document it.

7 January 2005

To get notified when new articles appear, subscribe to the Risky Thinking Newsletter. It's low volume: we don't send out an issue unless there is something interesting to say. You can also subscribe to our RSS Feed

Recently published articles can also be found here.

Agree or disagree? I'd like to hear your thoughts. Please initially use the contact form to get in touch.