Home Opinion The Perception of Safety as Part of Security

The Perception of Safety as Part of Security

by Brian Sims
John Davies

John Davies

Ask anyone in the security industry if what they provide is valuable and delivers a positive service to people and the majority would say that it does, observes John Davies. Those of us who work in the industry, or those who benefit from it directly, are acutely aware of the importance and value of good security, yet we also need to view what we do from the perspective of ‘the person on the street’.

We may see a ‘show of strength’ as being important, but for some members of the public it can easily take on a more sinister misconception if not managed properly.

Many security practitioners closely associate security with ‘Safety’ and there is a strong argument to suggest the two are often closely linked. However, it’s clear that this subtle (but nonetheless important) distinction in terms can have an important impact on the audience.

If you consider the public view of security (and, to some extent at least, play devil’s advocate) you can quickly envisage some of the negative clichés of the security world: stern looking teams at airport security or apparently burly and intimidating door supervisors outside a pub or nightclub. Naturally, these are vital elements to protect safety and security in the real world, but to some people they can be worrying, and especially so in those cases where individuals have had a bad experience of some kind, suffered from unfairly heavy-handed treatment or perhaps been privy to considerable inconvenience.

Contrast this with the provision of ‘Safety’ and immediately you have a much more positive image for the public. Delays at a concert venue or airport are undoubtedly a nuisance for visitors/passengers, but if you remind them that it’s there to protect them from terrorist attacks or violent crime then it suddenly becomes an obvious benefit to them, rather than a perceived aggravation.

Being watched

Surveillance is a big area of contention which often appears in (sometimes inflammatory) headlines. In an age of political uncertainly, many people are worried about the potential misuse of video surveillance and it’s easy to sympathise with this point of view. The images painted by George Orwell in his novel ‘1984’ still haunts the world of surveillance and ethics must be closely protected.

As an industry, we security providers need to promote the truism that surveillance systems need to be judged on how they’re used. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with monitoring public (and, in some cases, private) locations, but if surveillance is used simply to spy on the public going about their daily business it can quickly take a sinister turn.

In a responsible democracy with robust legal protection of citizens, surveillance is used to protect the public rather than betray them. Recent legislation such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), as well as the upcoming ePrivacy rules, are designed to robustly protect citizens’ rights and avoid the misuse of surveillance while also ensuring safety from snooping.

Monitoring infrastructure

One area where surveillance has been widely accepted as a safety measure is monitoring road networks to deal with incidents and to help better manage traffic flow. It’s nothing new. Central London, for example, has used CCTV for this very purpose since the mid-1970s, but this considerable history is perhaps part of the reason that it has met public acceptance as a safety feature.

Conversely, speed cameras have been more controversial in their deployment. Some commentators have even gone so far as to suggest they could be used as a cynical money-generating measure as much as a genuine safety feature. Again, this comes down to the types of deployment and the ethics of the organisations using them, but undoubtedly public perception has not always been supportive.

Advances in modern machine learning have enhanced the safety aspect of these cameras. Examples include automatically monitoring traffic collisions and accident ‘hotspots’ to assess problems and help formulate improvements to highway designs, traffic light systems and applicable road furniture/signage. This helps to safeguard road users and pedestrians alike. It’s most noticeable on the UKs latest Smart Motorways, where the technology rapidly detects incidents and helps to protect stranded vehicles.

An example of a security/safety technology that is perhaps more ambiguous in the public’s mind is Automatic Number Plate Recognition. Undoubtedly, many would acknowledge this helps the police and national security forces to track and apprehend criminals, but it can also provide an accurate record of all drivers’ movements on the highways. There’s an argument to say this could be misused to spy on the movement of citizens, which is exactly why the likes of the GDPR and ePrivacy have been introduced to tackle this threat and assure the public on their use.

Promoting the safety aspect

There are good examples of where safety is almost universally seen as a function of security systems, with railway stations (from large city terminals to the smallest and most deserted rural stops) being a prime example. Well-publicised and visible safety cameras and Help Points garner strong public support and genuinely make railway users feel safer.

In those areas and locations where there’s a clear risk of crime, the safety element is widely recognised and respected by the public. Where this is less obvious, security providers and operators need to be sensitive to public fears and openly demonstrate that these systems are not deployed to snoop on citizens.

There’s much talk now about designing ‘Safe Cities’ as part of ‘Smart Cities’ and this is no coincidence. These locations feature security that’s designed to keep people and property safe from the foundations up by using well-integrated security.

Security is a good example of where you need to ask a key question: just because you can do something, should you do it? There can be complex political and moral dilemmas to consider, but often a good application of common sense and sensitivity to public perception ensures people that security does protect and that they themselves have a greater recognition of this.

It’s vital that we all avoid unintentionally feeding paranoia over the perceived potential misuse of security technology and, instead, focus keenly on the considerable safety benefits realised.

John Davies is Managing Director of TDSi

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