Closed-Circuit Television

There are few crime control technologies that have caused more controversy than closed-circuit television (CCTV) in recent years. Since the Metropolitan Police first installed CCTV cameras in Trafalgar Square, London, in the 1960s, the status and understanding of CCTV as a crime control technology has only become more complex and nuanced. There are numerous reasons why the use of CCTV has been resisted by some, including the claim that it affects privacy and civil liberties, cost implications, the indiscriminate gaze of the camera that captures the movements of law-abiding citizens as well as of those with criminal intent, and strong doubts that CCTV is indeed an effective mechanism for controlling crime as the public has been encouraged to believe. CCTV has become strongly politicized, and this has often clouded understanding regarding its strengths and limitations. This entry first defines CCTV and its capabilities and then examines the prevalence and cost of communities utilizing CCTV. The effectiveness of CCTV with regard to deterrence, detection, and displacement is also analyzed.

What Is CCTV?

Much of the literature on CCTV spends little time describing the attributes of the CCTV systems that are the subject of analysis. This is particularly the case for the more theoretical discussion about the societal impact of CCTV. It is important to note that systems vary considerably in design and scope, as well as over time. CCTV can vary from unmonitored systems that include a small number of analogue cameras with basic technological capability to complex integrated digital networks that incorporate sophisticated features such as night vision, face recognition, tracking devices, “talking” cameras, and so on that are monitored 24 hours a day. CCTV has evolved considerably since its first introduction, which has important implications for how it operates and whether it can be considered effective. A new generation of “smart” cameras, combining visual surveillance with biometrics, is demanding a reconsideration of what CCTV is, how it operates, and how effectively it works. In addition to changes in technological capabilities, a body of evidence has emerged over recent decades that has informed understanding about how, when, and under what circumstances CCTV can be used as an effective crime control technology.

Prevalence and Cost

There has also been controversy around the prevalence of CCTV and the number of cameras in operation, particularly in Britain, which is widely considered to have been one of the earlier adopters of large-scale CCTV. For a long time, British citizens were considered to be the most camera-monitored population in the world. It is difficult to know the precise number of CCTV cameras in use, because estimations are few and often the figures rely on extrapolations from small surveys producing guesstimates that have large margins for error. The density of CCTV coverage is hugely varied by location, which renders extrapolations imprecise across disparate geographical areas. For example, rural areas are likely to have far fewer cameras than metropolitan areas.

The different methodological approaches and the difficulties involved in accurately determining the number of cameras have produced hugely varied estimates, which have ranged in recent years from 1.85 million to 5.9 million cameras being operative in Britain alone. It is important to recognize that the vast number of CCTV cameras are privately owned and operated, with some studies suggesting that as many as 98% are privately owned and operated. This, in turn, raises issues of regulation and accountability regarding the processing of personal data, but it also challenges those who regard CCTV surveillance as largely the purview of the state. While Britain has been a key consumer of CCTV, the technology is also increasingly being embraced by other countries around the world.

An exponential upward trend is often experienced in locations following the implementation of public CCTV, but it should be recognized that in recent years some areas have actually decreased their investment in some systems or have changed the way in which they are used and operated. The ongoing costs of maintenance and monitoring are likely part of the reasons underpinning a shift toward disinvestment. State funding is often provided for the initial purchase of equipment and infrastructure but not for ongoing expenditure to operate, monitor, maintain, and upgrade systems. In light of this, an interesting development is that some locales have switched to recording, not actively monitoring, camera footage, which is then accessed only if an incident is found to have occurred. Clearly, this could affect the effectiveness of CCTV, particularly the potential for CCTV operators to alert the relevant authorities, who can then dispatch police or security personnel to an incident as it develops. However, with the advent of smart CCTV, some systems are being developed to raise an alarm if a suspicious event is detected.

Understanding the Effectiveness of CCTV

The rationale for deploying CCTV is largely based on its supposed effectiveness as a crime control technology, as well as its presumed ability to reassure the public and reduce fear of crime. However, there have been challenges to this view, and the inconsistent findings from evaluations have fueled growing doubts about the capability of CCTV to deliver on early promises of effectiveness. Research studies that have explored the ability of CCTV to deter and detect crime have often produced contradictory findings. In light of this, systematic reviews and meta-analyses have been conducted that pool all of the available data to establish if there are any patterns to the impact that CCTV can have on crime. Overall, and somewhat simplifying the complexity of the nuanced findings, it has been shown that CCTV can have a modest effect on preventing crime, with the most marked impact on vehicle crime in parking lots and garages. The findings show that when CCTV is used alongside other crime control interventions, crime prevention is increased, and the environmental context can make a big difference in this prevention.

Environmental factors have long been recognized as having a significant impact on the levels of crime in a given area. Similarly, the conditions under which a CCTV system is operated will affect its effectiveness. For example, the number and positioning of cameras, the extent to which they cover relevant space, and the technical competence of the camera’s system will affect effectiveness. Furthermore, how the system is viewed by the police and the extent to which they are prepared to act on any intelligence received is important. External environmental features that are sometimes independent of the system might radically change the ability of CCTV to deter or detect crime. Factors such as lighting, signage, security personnel, and target-hardening measures are recurring influences in the literature exploring the operation of CCTV. In addition, the presence or absence of monitoring staff and the culture within the monitoring room have also been suggested as key determinants in how effective CCTV is. The role of individual agency is very important when accounting for the operation of CCTV. Therefore, regardless of whether CCTV can be effective, human operation may dictate whether it works in practice. Research has highlighted the difficulties that operators face in trying to monitor a large amount of footage simultaneously—poor communication channels with other agencies such as the police, the monotony of the work, as well as long hours and low pay.

Measuring the effectiveness of CCTV is complex and involves the consideration of many different factors, just some of which have been mentioned. However, most empirical assessments and discussions will gravitate around understanding the impact of CCTV on the “3Ds”: deterrence, detection, and displacement.


The crux of the deterrence capability lies in the claim that offenders are rational beings that weigh the benefits and risks of committing crime. If CCTV is interpreted as posing a significant risk, and one that cannot be easily overcome, it might prevent a crime from taking place in that location. For CCTV to deter offenders, they must first be aware that CCTV is present in the location and then perceive it to present a risk that cannot be overcome. Some research points to the fact that many crimes go undetected and unpunished and, therefore, offenders might recalculate the extent to which they believe CCTV presents a substantial enough risk to deter them from committing a crime. The deterrence capability is also vulnerable to changes over time. Initial deterrence can wane, particularly as offenders familiarize themselves with the location of the cameras and operation of the system, and especially as transgressions go undetected.

Overall, the effectiveness of CCTV in deterring crimes is questionable, but it should be recognized that the concept of deterrence can only ever generate “nonevents,” which by their nature are unobservable and so empirically difficult to measure.


It has been argued that in light of a growing body of evidence on how CCTV can be best used, the role of CCTV has shifted from being primarily deterrence to data and intelligence gathering. Under some circumstances, footage can be used to assist investigations, identify offenders, eliminate suspects, and seek witnesses, but its capabilities as a crime detection tool should not be overstated since the proportion of crimes that are solved as a direct result of CCTV footage remains relatively low. Returning to the idea of rational criminals, offenders can simply evade detection by wearing some form of disguise or utilizing everyday clothing items such as hats, scarves, and glasses; interfering with the cameras; or even damaging them so that they are no longer operable. However, using CCTV as a reactive forensic tool is cheaper since it avoids the expensive monitoring costs as previously outlined.


The displacement of crime is a pervasive concern in relation to situational crime prevention measures. In its simplest form, displacement refers to the movement of a crime or problem elsewhere due to an intervention, rather than eradicating the problem entirely. Displacement can take a variety of forms, including spatial (crime is moved from one location to another), tactical (offenders use a new means to commit the same offense), and functional (offenders change the type of crime, e.g., from street robbery to domestic burglary). Determining whether displacement has occurred is not straightforward, and studies remain inconclusive. The flip side of displacement is a diffusion of benefits whereby the beneficial influence of an intervention stems beyond the location directly targeted. The more optimistic proponents of CCTV suggest that the positive impact of introducing cameras can be extended beyond the actual field of vision as offenders might have a general sense of feeling inhibited or being aware of a generalized shift toward target hardening and growing securitization.


Research has begun to untangle the strengths and limitations of CCTV. The evidence is clear that CCTV is by no means a panacea and that any proposed use of CCTV needs to be part of a broader crime reduction strategy that carefully considers the benefits and limitations of the technology. It’s important to note that CCTV technology is continuing to develop, and this will improve its effectiveness over time. Furthermore, it is increasingly being integrated into and used alongside a range of other technology systems such as facial recognition, radio-frequency identification, and automatic number plate recognition. New types of CCTV use are emerging, and these offer both positives and negatives. Point of view cameras or body-worn video cameras are now being used (e.g., worn on the head or chest) as part of routine activities to monitor every interaction by the police and private security. Most citizens have mobile phones with cameras, and new methods are emerging to facilitate the use of images generated in this way for crime prevention benefits. CCTV is now being used to provide aerial surveillance from unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as drones, which generates new concerns about the ethical operation of CCTV. CCTV certainly continues to be controversial, but it is clear that it will continue to be used in some guise. Sufficient, credible, and enforced regulation will be the key to ensuring that the right balance between liberty and security is struck.

Emmeline Taylor

See also Aerial Reconnaissance and Surveillance ; Crime Control ; Home Surveillance ; Public Health, Surveillance in ; Technology

Further Readings

Gill, M.CCTV. Leicester, England: Perpetuity Press, 2003.

Gill, M. and A. Spriggs. Assessing the Impact of CCTV (Home Office Research Study 292). London, England: Home Office, 2005.

Norris, C. and G. Armstrong. The Maximum Surveillance Society: The Rise of CCTV. Oxford, England: Berg, 1999.

Taylor, E. “Evaluating CCTV: Why the Findings Are Inconsistent, Inconclusive and Ultimately Irrelevant.” Crime and Community Safety Journal, v.12 (2010).

Taylor, E. and M. Gill. “CCTV: Reflections on Its Use, Abuse and Effectiveness.” In M. Gill (ed.), The Handbook of Security. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Welsh, B. C. and D. P. Farrington. Crime Prevention Effects of Closed Circuit Television: A Systematic Review (Home Office Research Study 252). London, England: Home Office, 2002.

Welsh, B. C. and D. P. Farrington. “Closed-Circuit Television Surveillance.” In B. C. Welsh and D. P. Farrington (eds.), Preventing Crime: What Works for Children, Offenders, Victims and Places. London, England: Springer, 2007.