What Does Video Footage Say? CCTV And Police Responsibility Following The Attack At Parsons Green

Two suspects are in custody following last Friday’s attack at Parsons Green tube station, which injured 30 people. Police have already linked the attack to terrorism, raising its prominence in news outlets worldwide.

Following Friday’s attack, the U.K. raised its terror threat level to “critical.” The threat level has been scaled back to “severe.” But even as attention shifts from the attack itself to its aftermath, it’s worth considering some questions regarding terrorism, its effects and the resources we need to combat it.

CCTV footage has helped police identify and react to current terror threats in Britain. Following the weekend’s investigations, a short piece of footage that news agencies have called both “eerie” and “chilling” made its way online. The 25-second video shows a suspected attacker passing along a sidewalk in Sunbury-on-Thames approximately 80 minutes before the 8:20 a.m. detonation time. The suspect carries a bag from Lidle supermarket in the footage, seemingly the same bag in which the explosive device would later detonate. While the footage appears incriminating in this instance, it’s important to consider that the video simply shows a man walking down the street with a bag—full of what could be as innocuous as groceries.

In fact, as reported by the Guardian, it is curious as to why police authorities have not released additional footage of the suspect appearing closer to the train or entering the underground system—context which would make the footage more relevant. British Security Minister Ben Wallace commented on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme on the Saturday following the attack:

“I totally agree that CCTV footage is extremely useful and I have no doubt at some stage that will come but the conduct of the investigation I leave to the police and security services, and why and what they do with that information.”

The Guardian reports, however, that police have no plans to release further footage. This lack of context is important and raises a serious set of concerns. Indeed, Britain’s closed-circuit television system has long been a subject of discussion because of its implications for civilian privacy. Britain has repeatedly proven itself adept at restoring a sense of stability and security in the wake of this year’s attacks. Admirable police response times, effective police interference, and CCTV have all contributed to that sense of reasonable control and stability.

But without due context, footage like that of the Parsons Green attacker has the power to provide a false sense of security or make the public suspicious of every man carrying a full supermarket bag headed towards the underground. After all, the footage does not actually identify its subject as the attacker. British security services would, therefore, do well to use surveillance technologies like CCTV while also striving to provide the evidence appropriate context.

Reduced civilian privacy may be the current cost of safety in a reality under the threat of terror attacks. But it is our job to make sure that this kind of information is used and distributed responsibly and that the benefits of such surveillance technology continue to outweigh its costs.

Genevieve Zimantas