I Spy With My Little Eye… Using CCTV in your novel (Part 3)
Hello everyone, and welcome to this week's #TuesdayTip! This is the final post in a three part-series looking at video surveillance and how it could be used in your books. The first post introduced some examples of CCTV and also dispelled some common myths. Last week focused on complementary technologies such as night vision and ANPR. Today, I want to look at some more recent innovations that may give inspiration for your work, including body-worn cameras, dashcams and Google Street View.
Body-worn cameras, public camera phones and dashcams One of the biggest changes to policing in recent years is the proliferation of cheap, digital camera technology. Many police forces across the world have adopted the use of body-worn cameras for front-line officers. They are used for evidence gathering purposes, as a deterrent (the hope being that violent members of the public may think twice about assaulting a police officer if there is likely to be evidence) and as a way of protecting the police against allegations of misconduct. Of course, the opposite can also be true, with the body-worn cameras of some US police officers providing evidence of excessive violence towards un-armed suspects . The rules surrounding these cameras' use, and the circumstances in which they are deployed, vary by jurisdiction and it is a rapidly changing field. You may wish to consider researching their use by a particular force if accuracy is important. More recently, members of the public have taken to recording crimes and major incidents on their camera phones. Similarly, it is becoming increasingly common for drivers to fit dashboard-mounted cameras to their vehicles. They can be useful when establishing the facts of a road traffic collision, for example if the other driver is denying responsibility. Some insurance companies incentivise their use. Some cyclists also have helmet-mounted cameras. However, these devices will often pick up other footage that may be used as evidence. In a recent murder case in the UK, a conviction was achieved, in part, when a neighbour who was parked a few doors down waiting to pick someone up, with their dashcam active, captured the victim's estranged husband coming out of the house where she was found murdered. The time-stamp on the footage established that he was at the house earlier than he claimed and it was subsequently proved that his alibi was false. It is now common for police to request any footage, in the same way that they will appeal for eyewitnesses. Google Street View I have included this as it is a technology that can be of use to police, but which is sometimes misunderstood. The search engine giant Google, along with other mapping companies, started producing basic map data for integration with GPS in satellite navigation technology, back in 2005. Some years later, these companies, in particular Google, started commissioning high-resolution photography from surveillance satellites and (more commonly) low-flying aircraft. This allowed them to produce top-down photographs of much of the Earth's surface. By combining this with the pre-existing navigation and mapping technology, Google Earth was born. Users can put in an address, or place of interest, and see aerial photographs of that area. Resolution varies, but it's not uncommon to be able to recognise your house, and perhaps even the car on your driveway. In 2007, Google went one better and started photographing neighbourhoods at ground level. They sent cars up and down roads with roof-mounted 360 degree panoramic cameras. Street View, allows you to virtually walk up and down areas and 'look around'. It is a great way of checking out a neighbourhood before visiting an estate agent, for example.
The police also use this technology. But it has important limitations. First, it is not the same as a spy satellite. The images used are often weeks, months or even years out of date. The police cannot call up Google Earth and look to see if a suspect's car is parked outside their house. That photo was probably taken months ago. However, it can provide the police with the basis for intelligence gathering or planning. For example, they may be able to identify entry/exit points to a property, permanent outbuildings such as sheds that they need to search, or the fact that the house (at the time the photograph was taken) has no garden wall for the police to hide behind when sneaking up before a raid. It's not a substitute for proper, eyes-on intelligence gathering, but it can certainly help.
New technologies Two emerging technologies that may be of use in your novel are Facial recognition and Gait Analysis. Long a staple of Hollywood thrillers and futuristic novels, facial recognition is starting to enter the mainstream. Anti-terrorism units and the intelligence services are already able to identify faces in real-time from a database of 'persons of interest'. As the technology becomes cheaper, and cameras continue to proliferate in public spaces, this is likely to become more common. More recently, private companies have taken to using the technology to identify football hooligans, or intercept known shop-lifters entering shopping centres. There is a vigorous debate over the legality of its use, its accuracy and privacy implications in a free-society. There are also questions over its accuracy for dark-skinned people, with suggestions that the historic tendency of developers to populate the system's 'training' database primarily with white, Caucasian faces leads to increased misidentification of people of colour. The degree of access that the detectives in your novel will have to this technology is changing constantly, so consider if it is appropriate for your book to feature it. If you are unsure, you could always hedge your bets and have your detectives request its use, but perhaps be rebuffed by a magistrate refusing a warrant, or the video surveillance unit not having the resources for this type of case. Of course the biggest obstacle in the current climate is the use of facemasks. Since some degree of mask-wearing is likely to be with us for the next couple of years, a person with their face covered in public will no longer elicit the same suspicion that it might have done. Could your perpetrators use the current pandemic to their advantage?
Gait Analysis is a relatively new technology that forensic specialists have been developing. There are some who believe that the way in which a person walks (their gait) is a unique biometric that can be used to identify a person on video footage. This claim is contested by others who don't think it is as accurate as some would claim. Injuries, carrying a heavy bag, different shoes, taking extra care on an icy pavement... all of these factors might change a person's gait. Needless to say, good quality video footage is essential for this purpose. The footage is analysed by a forensic podiatrist and is an example of an 'expert opinion'. From a legal point of view, it hasn't been rigorously tested in the courts, so relying on it as the strongest piece of evidence against a suspect would be risky. There have been several appeals against its use in recent years. However it may still have some use in the police's investigation. Imagine a scenario where a person is murdered in their workplace, out of hours. The killer is likely to be a co-worker (so they have legitimate explanations for physical evidence found at the scene), but everyone claims to have an alibi. Chasing down each co-worker would be a huge task for a large workforce. However, CCTV outside the building captures somebody with a distinctive walk (perhaps a limp?). The police then prioritise this person as a suspect.
Thank you once again for reading this far. As always, I hope that it has been useful, perhaps even providing inspiration for your own work. Please feel free to comment here or on social media. Best wishes, Paul