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Citizen Monitors, CCTV, and the Internet: A Combination to Consider

By Stephen S. Owen, PhD, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Radford University, Radford, Virginia; and Tod W. Burke, PhD, Former Police Officer, Howard County, Maryland, and Ocean City, Maryland, Professor of Criminal Justice, and Interim Associate Dean for the College of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences at Radford University, Radford, Virginia

A citizen sitting at a computer in the comfort of home suddenly sits up, alarmed, rapidly clicking the mouse and quickly typing a message. Moments later, police officers arrive on the scene of a robbery in progress, apprehending the offender. The citizen had been watching the live feed of a closed-circuit television (CCTV) security camera from a business located in another city, in another state. But upon seeing what appeared to be a robbery in progress, the viewer sends an image captured from the screen and a message to the appropriate police department with one click of the mouse. An outlandish scenario? Not with the availability of modern technology

he United Kingdom has more CCTV camera coverage per citizen than any other country. While there is no official count for how many cameras are in use, the figure of 4.2 million, based on academic research, is often cited.1 The technology exists for Internet users to view CCTV feeds from private businesses that have elected to make these feeds available. One new program allows viewers to receive points for accurately reporting suspicious activities or crimes, and the viewer with the most points each month receives a £1,000 (approximately $1,605.80) prize.2 This illustrates the potential for CCTV programs to expand on the Internet and to the public. Accordingly, police agencies and security planners should consider the potential ramifications, both positive and negative.

When a police executive considers the use of CCTV security video streamed over the Internet, there are many factors that need to be addressed. While this represents a new advancement for CCTV technology, it is one that brings both advantages and disadvantages.

Overview of CCTV

CCTV for crime prevention has a relatively recent history. Many CCTV applications have been utilized in private security systems. As a component of industrial or business security, cameras may be strategically placed to provide surveillance of vulnerable areas. CCTV can also be utilized in public settings, such as streets, parks, and public transportation. Much of the pioneering work with public CCTV application has been done in the United Kingdom. Government funds have been allocated to develop CCTV systems as part of a national strategy supported by Parliament and the Home Office.3 In the United States, the public use of CCTV has been increasing,4 though it is more uneven than in the United Kingdom, lacking a federally funded initiative and raising criticism about the potential for invasion of privacy.

Most research on CCTV has focused on its public applications. A recent study found that public CCTV was most effective in reducing crime in parking lots, but was less effective in other venues.5 Other research has found that public CCTV may deter crime for up to two months after the initiation of a program, but the effect wanes after that point in time.6

CCTV systems in both public and private settings may be monitored either actively or passively. Active monitoring means that the video feed is monitored continuously and in real time by an officer or other person who scrutinizes a bank of television screens. Passive monitoring means that the cameras record images, but the recordings are not examined unless there is a need to do so (for example, after a crime is known to have occurred).

Citizens as Active Monitors

The increasingly easy and inexpensive availability of computer technology can allow citizens to participate as active monitors in CCTV programs that otherwise would be passively structured. Rather than feeding CCTV video to a control room or to a recording system, video could be streamed online for citizen monitors to review. There are, however, different models by which streaming online CCTV can be implemented. A number of questions would have to be addressed, including the following:

  • Should citizen monitors be selected, screened, and trained? Or should any citizen have access to a website to monitor CCTV feeds? In many ways, this decision would impact quality control and comprehensiveness of coverage. A paraprofessional corps would provide more focused monitoring with a better understanding of what to look for but would limit the number of feeds that could be monitored. Opportunities provided to all members of the public could increase participation but would lack quality control standards.

  • Should citizen monitors receive any type of compensation (for example, stipends or rewards), or should efforts be wholly voluntary? This decision could impact the level of interest among the public. Voluntary efforts would pose fewer financial and ethical difficulties. For instance, the use of payments could cause overzealous reporting at best or at worst could raise concerns dating back to Jonathan Wild’s days as a “thief taker,” in which deviance was incited in hopes of earning payment for reporting it.7 However, whether even the most altruistic of citizens would be motivated to monitor a video screen for any period of time without some sort of compensation is unclear, and rewards are routinely offered (sometimes from public budgets)8 in exchange for information about criminal cases.

  • Should citizen monitors know which properties they are monitoring? Or should the process be “blind,” in which citizens watch a video feed from an unknown location? Viewing a known location can be beneficial if a viewer’s familiarity with the location and its regular visitors and inhabitants can aid in contextualizing what is observed. In the parlance of situational crime prevention, this can serve to “extend guardianship” and “use place managers”9 for a known location. This could also help build a sense of shared community concern (or “collective efficacy”10) about the location, which is associated with a reduction in crime. On the other hand, at least two concerns emerge about monitoring known properties. First, citizen monitors should not feel as though they are imbued with any special authority that could lead to vigilantism or a belief that they are in control of a space. Second, a risk that must be anticipated is that, with a feed from a known location, potential offenders could use the video to case that location.

Accordingly, there are many questions, advantages, and disadvantages associated only with the logistics of a citizenbased online CCTV monitoring program. Considered jointly, the above discussion suggests that one approach might be to use paraprofessionals who receive a stipend and monitor known locations, while another might be to allow a broader group of citizens to view feeds but without (or with only minimal) compensation and while viewing locations that are not known or that are not deliberately selected by the viewer. The key is to maximize utility of the program while minimizing risk.

While the above questions are difficult and the concept of citizen-based CCTV monitoring may be scorned by some, technology has already changed society in ways that promote the development of such programs. Neighborhood Watch is poised to go digital. The net generation11—persons born after 1977—consists of digital multitaskers who thrive in an electronic world and who are more interested in the Internet than in television. Research indicates that “gamers notice more: They process visual information more quickly,”12 which is certainly an advantage when viewing CCTV video. As crime prevention moves toward its next frontier, it can take advantage of this new digital era. Some law enforcement agencies have taken advantage of the Internet and other electronic messenging systems to communicate with the public.13 Is Internet-based citizen monitoring of CCTV feeds next?


There are several advantages of having citizens monitor CCTV feeds. First, the practice is consistent with the popular philosophy of community-oriented policing: “Community policing promises to strengthen the capacity of communities to fight and prevent crime on their own.”14 Utilizing electronic mediums can increase this capacity by potentially drawing a larger number of people into community policing efforts through an innovative use of technology. By virtue of monitoring and reporting on streaming CCTV videos, the public would be actively working to fight crime. Depending on how the system was implemented, it could expand the concept of “community” beyond a block or neighborhood to include a broader segment of society. The more ownership residents take for the well-being of society, the more effective crime prevention can become. This is consistent with principles of crime prevention through environmental design15 and defensible space,16 both of which stress the crime prevention value of promoting symbolic ownership of space.

Second, there is reason to believe that individuals would be willing to serve as CCTV monitors. The popularity of criminal justice television programs and the continuous increase in Internet usage17 suggest that online CCTV monitoring could both generate interest and be viewed as a convenient way to contribute to crime prevention efforts.

Third, citizen monitoring of CCTV feeds can aid officer safety. Actively monitored cameras can provide useful real-time data that can be communicated to police agencies. For instance, persons monitoring CCTV feeds could not only report a crime in progress but also report dangers such as visible weapons, number and location of potential accomplices, and so on. In 2008, more than 10 percent of all assaults against law enforcement officers came from responding to burglaries, robberies, and suspicious person reports.18 Any information that could reduce the danger to officers is useful.

Fourth, citizen monitoring of CCTV feeds can enhance the accountability of law enforcement officers. Just as patrol car cameras have had a positive effect on police professionalism,19 CCTV video feeds can allow for direct citizen oversight of police actions that are captured on camera.

Fifth, active citizen monitoring of CCTV cameras could enhance the safety of an area. In the United Kingdom, CCTV systems must be accompanied by signs notifying persons of their usage.20 In addition to addressing concerns about privacy, research has suggested that signs enhance the deterrent value of CCTV programs.21 If signs clearly communicate that the camera is actively being monitored, even if from a remote location, the deterrent effect may be further enhanced. This is consistent with research findings that positive behaviors, such as providing help to others, may also increase when security cameras are present, and advertising the presence of the cameras may play a central role in promoting this positive effect.22

Some of the above points are not contingent upon civilians being the persons who monitor the CCTV videos; the benefits could accrue even if security officers or police officers were the ones providing active monitoring. However, actively monitoring cameras can be resource intensive if an employee must be designated (and thus removed from other duties) and paid to watch. Therefore, a final benefit is that citizen monitoring may not only promote positive community collaborations with law enforcement but also allow for crime prevention through active monitoring of CCTV feeds to be facilitated in a cost-efficient manner, especially in a time of diminished resources.

While these are significant benefits, there are also some potential concerns that citizen monitoring may cause. The next section will examine them in more detail.


Among the most significant concerns must be the legal implications of having nonsecurity or non–law enforcement personnel monitor CCTV videos. Before any such program is implemented, legal counsel should be consulted to ascertain any potential problems. First, the status of the individuals who are performing the monitoring would have to be clarified; namely, would they be considered government agents? A variety of factors beyond the scope of this article would likely be considered. Whether or not various constitutional protections apply would help to reveal the answer to this question.

Second, a criticism likely to be raised would pertain to concerns about an emerging “culture of surveillance”23 and its potential to diminish privacy. If citizen monitors are understood to be agents of the government to whom the rules of constitutional criminal procedure would apply, then at least two precedents could be of interest. The first is the plain view doctrine in which “the seizure of an object in plain view does not involve an intrusion on privacy.”24 The second is the oft-cited provision in Justice Harlan’s concurrence in Katz v. United States, which stipulates that the Fourth Amendment is invoked when “a person [has] exhibited an actual (subjective) expectation of privacy and, second, that the expectation be one that society is prepared to recognize as ‘reasonable.’ ”25 A key question, then, would be whether the placement of cameras, with the plain view they provide, intrudes on a protected area of privacy. Another concern would be whether analyses of privacy change if monitoring is completed by persons other than law enforcement or security personnel, or if feeds are distributed across the Internet with wider access for viewing than otherwise would be available.

These questions remain to be answered. However, two findings may be instructive. In 2004, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld an injunction against streaming Internet video of pretrial detainees in a county jail on the grounds that it unconstitutionally subjected the detainees to punishment.26 Interestingly, and perhaps with implications for Internet-based CCTV monitoring, the court also held that the video streams “were plainly an excessive response to [the] interest in maintaining jail security”27 and that neither deterrence nor being “open to public scrutiny”28 were sufficient rationales. While jail is a different venue than public settings, this case does indicate that Internet-streamed video feeds may be subject to a different sort of analysis than internally monitored CCTV.

A 2007 report from the United Kingdom suggests that many CCTV cameras failed to meet privacy safeguards, namely the required posting of signage and protections against leaking feeds to third parties, imperiling criminal prosecutions based on CCTV recordings. While this was disputed by the government, it illustrates the importance of ensuring that cameras and their feeds be legally constituted.29

Even if citizen CCTV monitors are not viewed as agents of the government, privacy concerns still remain. The use of the Internet as “the digital scarlet letter”30 is a phenomenon through which Internet users can both identify and spread information about persons who violate laws or norms. This leads to new forms of electronic shaming. Is it possible that citizen CCTV monitors would post images or information about whom and what they see in CCTV feeds, whether accurate or not, leading to online shaming, labeling, or vigilantism, and ultimately defamation lawsuits?31 Again, determining the need for and mechanisms to accomplish confidentiality is an issue that must be addressed by counsel.

Regardless of the status of persons who monitor CCTV feeds, it is important to recognize the risk for “unintended consequences of crime prevention,”32 at least two of which merit consideration. One risk is that citizen monitoring of CCTV feeds could generate negative behaviors, a problem known as creating “perverse incentives.”33 For instance, persons monitoring CCTV video could potentially engage in voyeuristic behavior, stalking, or could record and sell the most sensational clips.34 Monitors could also engage in racial profiling; indeed, one study in which trained civilians monitored CCTV videos found that their discretionary choices of who to monitor “were heavily biased toward minorities, males, and youth.”35 Another risk is that monitors could utilize what they see on CCTV videos to plan or facilitate their own criminal enterprises, targeting victims by learning about security practices or breeches reflected in the feeds.36

The effectiveness of the program is unknown. Would persons monitoring CCTV video do so while multitasking on other projects, thereby reducing their attentiveness and their ability to observe criminal behavior? If so, effectiveness could be diminished. Or would monitors be overzealous, reporting incidents that are innocent (or that, while violating norms, may not be illegal), thus generating a higher number of calls for service for police responders? It is difficult to anticipate the answers to these questions.


Someday, facial recognition technologies37 and artificial intelligence systems38 may allow for computers to automatically monitor CCTV video. In the meantime, active monitoring remains as the only option for real-time CCTV crime detection and prevention. If the above concerns and implementation details can be addressed, citizen involvement with CCTV crime prevention programs could prove beneficial. With ever-expanding technology, security, and crime prevention, planners must consider how to take advantage of the digital age and the opportunities it brings. ■


1John Woodhouse, CCTV and Its Effectiveness in Tackling Crime (report to Members of Parliament, House of Commons Library, July 1, 2010), (accessed February 9, 2011).
2“New PC Game to Allow Players [to] View CCTVs, Report Crime,” Financial Express (October 6, 2009), (accessed February 9,2011); and Internet Eyes, (accessed February 9, 2011).
3Graeme Gerrard et al., National CCTV Strategy (Home Office, October 2007), 7–8, (accessed February 9, 2011).
4Brandon C. Welsh and David P. Farrington, “Public Area CCTV and Crime Prevention: An Updated Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Justice Quarterly 26, no. 4 (2009): 716–745.
5Ibid, 736.
6Lorraine Mazerolle, David Hurley, and Mitchell Chamlin, “Social Behavior in Public Spaces: An Analysis of Behavioral Adaptations to CCTV,” Security Journal 15, no. 3 (2002): 59–75.
7Herbert A. Johnson, History of Criminal Justice (Cincinnati, Ohio: Anderson Publishing, 1988), 173.
8Brent Begin, “Rewards Raised in Murder Cases,” The San Francisco Examiner, March 7, 2008, (accessed February 9, 2011).
9Ronald V. Clarke and John E. Eck, “40 Increase the Risks of Crime,” in Crime Analysis for Problem Solvers in 60 Small Steps (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 2005), (accessed February 9, 2011).
10Robert J. Sampson and Stephen W. Raudenbush, “Disorder in Urban Neighborhoods—Does It Lead to Crime?” National Institute of Justice Research in Brief, February 2001, (accessed February 9, 2011).
11Don Tapscott, Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation Is Changing Your World (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009), 2.
12Ibid, 101.
13Tim Dees, “Social Networks for Better Policing: Facebook, Twitter, Blogs and Google Voice,” Law and Order 57, no. 11 (November 2009): 32–26, (accessed February 14, 2011); and Chad Nilson and Tod W. Burke, “Policing by Internet: High-Tech Community Policing,” Law and Order 50, no. 8 (August 2002): 36–39.
14Wesley G. Skogan, “The Promise of Community Policing,” in Police Innovation: Contrasting Perspectives, ed. David Weisburd and Anthony A. Braga (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 29.
15Paul Michael Cozens, Greg Saville, and David Hillier, “Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED): A Review and Modern Bibliography,” Property Management 23, no. 5 (2005): 328–356.
16Oscar Newman, Creating Defensible Space (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1996), chapter 1, (accessed February 9, 2011).
17“Online Activities, 2000–2009,” Pew Internet and American Life Project, (accessed February 9, 2011).
18FBI, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, “Law Enforcement Officers Assaulted 2008,” October 2009, table 68, (accessed February 9, 2011).
19Lonnie J. Westphal, “The In-Car Camera: Value and Impact,” The Police Chief 71 (August 2004): 59–60, 62, 65, (accessed February 9, 2011).
20Mark Cole, “Signage and Surveillance: Interrogating the Textual Context of CCTV in the UK,” Surveillance and Society 2, no. 2/3 (2004): 430–445.
21Mazerolle et al., “Social Behavior in Public Spaces,” 59.
22Thomas J. L. Van Rompay, Dorette J. Vonk, and Marieke L. Fransen, “The Eye of the Camera: Effects of Security Cameras on Prosocial Behavior,” Environment and Behavior 41, no. 1 (2009): 60–74.
23William G. Staples, Everyday Surveillance: Vigilance and Visibility in Postmodern Life (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), 1.
24Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128 (1990).
25Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 361 (1967).
26Demery et al. v. Arpaio, 378 F.3d 1020 (2004).
27Id. at 1029.
28Id. at 1031.
29Tim Hall, “Majority of UK’s CCTV Cameras ‘Are Illegal,’” The Telegraph, May 31, 2007, (accessed February 9, 2011).
30Daniel J. Solove, The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007), 76.
31Ibid., chapter 4.
32Peter Grabosky, “Unintended Consequences of Crime Prevention,” in ThePolitics and Practice of Situational Crime Prevention, Crime Prevention Studies 5, edited by Ross Homel (Monsey, N.Y.: Criminal Justice Press, 1996), 25–56.
33Ibid., 34.
34Staples, Everyday Surveillance, 61.
35Dean A. Dabney et al., “The Impact of Implicit Stereotyping on Offender Profiling: Unexpected Results from an Observational Study of Shoplifting,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 33, no. 5 (2006): 646–674, (accessed February 14, 2011).
36Grabosky, “Unintended Consequences of Crime Prevention,” 30.
37Matthew Grinnell and Tod Burke, “Face Recognition Technology,” Law and Order, 49, no. 11 (November 2001): 36–40.
38Richard Alleyne, “Artificially Intelligent CCTV Could Prevent Crimes before They Happen,” The Telegraph, September 23, 2009, (accessed February 9, 2011).

Please cite as:

Stephen S. Owen and Tod W. Burke, "Citizen Monitors, CCTV, and the Internet: A Combination to Consider," The Police Chief 78 (April 2011): 18–26.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 3, April 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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