A Video Surveillance Case Study in Failure

It’s easy to find case studies that describe how a video surveillance project helped to “transform” a retailer’s operations. How a new camera system has lowered their costs, maximized efficiency, or enhanced safety. Axis Communications has an entire book of them.

Market analysts expect organizations to increasingly be lured by the prospect of harnessing video’s power, especially as artificial intelligence (AI) improves analytics and turns images into a wide range of useable intelligence. Nearly 85 million cameras will be active in the US by 2021, according to IHS Markit’s Video Surveillance Installed Base Report. That is about one camera for every four people.

Security device makers and installers routinely push out client case studies to advertise how well these projects go. They walk you through how this corporate headquarters, or that warehouse, effectively rolled out a new system, itemizing innumerable security benefits and quoting happy stakeholders. These accounts have merit: They offer valuable insight on project management and demonstrate how technology is addressing real security and loss prevention challenges. Since the focus is always on the value of technology projects, however, they’re never useful as a cautionary example. But the fact is that security projects can—and do—go horribly wrong, as one did for a group of libraries in the Pacific Northwest.

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While not a retail case study, the county-wide library system has a structure akin to a regional retailer’s, with a central branch and 46 individual locations and 1,200 employees. Presented at an information security conference, the study, A Retreat from the Panoptic: One Public Library’s Experience with Video Surveillance, noted that the project ended with the library system ripping out all the cameras it had installed.

The problem. The county-wide library system wanted to address repeated incidents of crime occurring in and around library branches. In a survey of branch managers, theft was the most cited concern, followed by loitering/undesirable youth activity. Other problems included prostitution, car break-ins, graffiti, vandalism, and gang presence. Staff safety was also a concern, according to the survey.

The process. Individual branch managers submitted requests to the library system’s facilities services division for installation of video surveillance cameras. Ultimately, cameras were installed at about a quarter of the county’s libraries.

The result. This project ended differently than the typical case study. After two years, during which branches installed numerous cameras, “the library system ultimately reversed course and removed every camera under its control.”

The Problem with the Solution

How did a seemingly good idea—use video cameras to reduce and deter unwanted behavior and identify problem individuals in and around the branch locations—turn sour? The research suggests several missteps that doomed the project, turning a security initiative into a waste of precious resources.

No plan. “The installation of the cameras was never part of a system-wide security plan, but rather originated at the individual location level,” according to the study. Decisions about the installation and management of the cameras were left to the individual discretion of the branches. This resulted in a host of problems:

  • Unnecessary implementation. Without a comprehensive plan for using cameras, some seemed to have been installed without sufficient justification. “Findings suggest that the ad hoc implementation may have caused libraries to respond to individual incidents rather than thinking strategically,” according to the study.
  • Poor positioning. Without guidance on where to locate cameras, the effectiveness of cameras varied by branch location. A library security coordinator stated that, “I’m not sure if we’ve done a good job of identifying locations and…positioning the cameras” because some of the library locations with “high altercation rates…do not have cameras at all or in areas where the altercations occur.”
  • Reactive management. Without a comprehensive plan for rolling out cameras, Administration did not develop in advance the policies necessary to manage them. Instead central administrators were caught having to craft policies on the fly—such as a video-retention policy—as the need became evident.
  • Mismatched goals/solution. Two-thirds of the branches that requested and received authorization to purchase cameras said they needed them, in part, to monitor activity in and around the buildings. In practice, however, most branches did not continuously monitor the feeds. Thus, the cameras were unable to serve the stated purpose for being there. Similarly, although the cameras were supposed to help identify problem individuals, “camera resolution is not good enough to recognize their face, so the cameras are only good in the very short term, like verifying that someone has left the library premises,” said one library manager.

No consensus. The video cameras served the security needs of individual libraries but were a poor cultural fit for the library system as a whole. The issue came to a head after conflict arose with local police departments. Although individual libraries had positive working relationships with local police departments, including occasions when their cameras were useful to police in solving cases involving stolen library property, central library administration had a policy requiring a subpoena before handing over footage because of its interpretation of the library records exemption to the state public records act. Central administration also worried about what message cameras were sending to the public.

The disparate opinions about the relative costs and benefits of the cameras ultimately doomed the project, as well as the fact that managers and staff at individual locations were much more invested in the camera systems than central administration. Ultimately, library administration decided to swiftly pull all security cameras out of library branches, notifying them in a branch-wide memo.

Lessons Learned

The pitfalls encountered in the project described above suggest steps retail organizations might consider as they adopt new security technology.

1. Assess how a security program or project will fit into the organizational culture. For example, an EAS gate at the front door may provide useful theft control and even provide a positive return on investment, but it may run counter to the image a specific retail brand wants to project. “In any organization, culture supersedes everything,” said one security consultant. “Any security purchase has to first fit into the culture. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter how good the business case is.”

2. Develop a strategic security equipment plan. A formal equipment plan can prevent an organization from investing in unnecessary security technology; forces an organization to consider how a specific project aligns with the way technology is evolving; and requires an organization to identify how it plans to use the new technology to its benefit.

3. Craft a statement of purpose for cameras. When installing surveillance cameras, it is helpful to document the purpose that each camera is intended to serve. (For example, is it to provide visual evidence or remote assessment? Who will have access to data analytics generated by the camera?) A surveillance camera purpose statement is also a good place to address privacy considerations.

4. Develop video surveillance policies. Among the issues that policies should address are privacy considerations, operator behavior, permissions, archiving, operator training, chain-of-custody, maintenance, and fielding law enforcement requests for footage.

5. Conduct an annual assessment or audit to ensure that a video surveillance system is being operated correctly and used for its express purposes and that video surveillance remains the correct security tool for the job.

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