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Manufacturers & installers: is there any hope?

The story I tell below is real. Frighteningly, it’s not unique. I was called to a famous-name industrial site who owned a 20-camera CCTV system recently installed by a very well known company. A globally known name, in fact. They needed an independent CCTV expert to investigate the system as it was failing to meet their needs. What did I find? Well, I found that I was appalled at the incompetence of the installer.

Twisted-pair cabling had been used to get analogue camera signals back to the monitoring & recording gear. Fair enough. Some of the images shown on the video monitors were poor so, suspecting poor incoming signals I broke out my oscilloscope to see for myself. The trusty ‘scope showed me traces similar to this one (left). Notice the rounded synchronization pulse and, especially, the drop in the chroma (colour) burst. The latter comes out of the camera at 300mVpp* and should be no less than about 160mVpp** at the receiving end. In this case, it is out of the twisted pair receiver unit which contains an amplifier. The ‘scope image here shows ~200mV so it’s ok.

What I found on this site beggared belief. The chroma levels were mainly over 300mV; some at 500mV and one at 900mV! The latter so bad that the cars on camera ‘sizzled’ on the video monitor. How on earth can the installer’s adjustments be so wrong? My guess is that the supposedly capable engineer was nothing of the sort. This seems to be largely the case in CCTV. Did he use a ‘scope to check the signals? Patently not. Should he? In my book, certainly. Ok, so what did he do when he adjusted the LF and HF potentiometers on the front of the signal receiver? If he followed the manufacturer’s instructions we can immediately get an inkling of why the poor results. The manufacturer is famous for twisted-pair interfaces. You’ve very likely heard of them. It astounds me that their written guidance to installers (who, from lots of my experiences, often lack basic technical knowledge anyway) is to turn the LF control until it’s bright enough, then turn the HF control unit it’s sharp enough. What?!! There is no mention of setting levels with an oscilloscope, or even a simple video levels meter. Appalling. In July 2008 I rang them and expressed my great dissatisfaction. As of writing this in April 2010 their manual still says no better. The customer gave me permission to properly adjust each of the incoming signals for him. It took just a few minutes. What a difference. By the way, the handful of really low chroma burst (<160mV) were from the co-axial cabled cameras that we just a few yards from the recording rack! It sounds like some very poor cabling practices were hidden above their ceilings to be that bad.

If that’s how well-known manufacturer’s and installers perform then the CCTV world is sinking into the mire fast. The end-user paid good money for that system and it was shocking. It really, really makes sense for them to get a competent CCTV consultant in at the outset to make sure these travesties don’t happen. One who has the gear and knows how to use it. I’m happy to earn my living helping to sort these things out afterwards, but it would be better to earn a living seeing these projects go right first time. It would be cheaper and less embarrassing for the CCTV owner too.

There, we can do techie posts for the ‘anoraks’ amongst you. There’s plenty more where that came from.

See you at the IFSEC security exhibition next week.

Until next time; stay focused.

* pp = peak-to-peak.
** Assuming a maximum permissible drop of 6dB (=50% in voltage) at 5MHz we can permit a drop of 5.5dB at the chroma burst frequency of 4.43MHz (by calculation) which lets 300mV drop to 160mV.

Why bring Big Brother into it?

Big Brother posterFor many years the anti-CCTV purveyors of prattling paranoia to the public (isn’t alliteration an alluring amusement?) have used the concept of Big Brother to paint the use of CCTV as a despicable tool to oppress the masses. As one of the masses myself; and probably designated one of the ‘Outer Party‘ described in George Orwell’s novel “1984” by dint of my work as a CCTV consultant who often works alongside local government CCTV systems; why don’t I feel oppressed by CCTV, unlike the Guardianistas who so clearly do? I see little solid evidence for the presence of Orwell’s Big Brother in CCTV in the UK. Why are my feelings about CCTV so significantly different from theirs?

One hypothesis I’m conjuring with revolves around our differing depths of genuinely hands-on knowledge of CCTV in the real world. I have designed, installed, tested and maintained CCTV systems and, as a consultant, advised on these activities and the management of real world system for many years. In stark contrast, the ‘anti’ brigade seem to lack this down-on-the-ground, practical experience. Why do I suspect this? Simple. Look at the careers of the loudest mouths to date. Journalists. Pen-pushers. Graduates in politics. These are people with access to a megaphone in their daily roles. No wonder they drown other voices out.

Are any of them CCTV professionals who’ve worked at the coal face? To take a view on that possibility we only have to read their commentary, the questionable ‘evidence’ that they cite, and the profoundly loopy conclusions at which they often arrive. They seem incapable of gauging the (in)sanity of their wild assertions. Anyone who actually knew the reality of the situations about which they mount their high-horses simply wouldn’t reach these erroneous conclusions, before going on to build ever-growing paranoia upon these fantastical foundations. Who does it hurt? Them; and the soft heads who seemingly want to be frightened (like a child wanting to ride the ghost train at a funfair) who accept this bulldust hook, line & sinker.

The Guardianistas, Big Brother Watch, and their ilk probably lay awake at night worrying about the imaginary CCTV bogeyman. Do I? No, because I’ve seen first-hand what’s really going on every day behind doors that are naturally closed to all but the people actually doing the job in hand. The doors should be closed, not for the Orwellian reasons that they suspect, but because it’s security-sensitive and confidential information that’s being handled in those rooms and is for trained, authorised eyes only. Quite rightly. Would you want your banker to let people see into their offices, willy nilly? No. Same goes in CCTV. It seems to me that nothing is stopping these campaigners from leaving their out-of-touch world of the liberal elite, lengthy lunches in Islington bistros and Westminster wine bars in order to take up roles at the sharp end of CCTV where some real work in done. If they did their longstanding paranoia, largely created by their imaginations filling the vacuum in their knowledge, would melt away under the weight of evidence from the real world.

I will agree with them in condemning the occasions that good practice is not followed in CCTV. There are, of course, many examples of this as there are in any sphere of endeavour you care to name (but not as many as they’d have you believe with their scaremongering).  However, when CCTV is properly run and is demonstrably a proportionate measure in light of its particular circumstances, their misguided objections and spread of misinformation, especially to their fellows in the liberal elite who are often the strategic decision makers in government, must be strongly countered. Few in are doing the latter which can only be done by people who really know what they’re talking about. They are rare, and often the ones quite wrongly drowned out by the liberal loudmouths with their professional megaphones.

If you read “1984” as I have just done again, you’ll find that the ‘telescreens’ are the only device that even hints at what we call CCTV. They have significant differences from CCTV and so the parallel is grossly unfair. More on this another day, but in the meantime be aware that Orwell’s Big Brother has far more in common with fundamentalist religious organizations that govern the thoughts and the lives of millions than it does with real world CCTV. They should stop perpetuating this tenuous association.

Until next time; stay focused.

Image by surfstyle on flickr.com by creative commons attribution.

CCTV in a positive light

It has occurred to me over the years that there are at least two distinct camps in the media regarding the proliferation of CCTV in the UK.

One camp promotes CCTV as the silver bullet to solving crime, moaning when someone or something fails to make the most of the available technology. While that would sound like a good thing to people like me earning their living as CCTV consultants, there is definitely something of a misplaced optimism about CCTV’s real world capabilities. While this blog intends to address some of these issues in the future, let’s not look this gift horse in the mouth.

The other camp, seemingly largely the ‘Guardianista‘ brigade and miscellaneous members of the liberal ‘elite’, are frequently grinding their axes about the evil embodied in CCTV usage. We’ll address this in the future too, but it seems to me they take this position because they know so little about the reality of CCTV that their imaginations are free to make up all sorts of ‘bogeyman’ stories that they then trot out to each other (and through their spouting in the mass media) until they come to believe their largely unfounded tosh.

CCTV Street SignPictures designed to convey the ominous use of CCTV cameras and intrusive surveillance abound in large catalogues of images such as the commercial image libraries and public ones such as Flickr. Try http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=cctv to see what I mean.

To counter this tide of negativity I decided to direct my penchant for photography and Photoshop to create some pro-CCTV images. The mock CCTV street sign to the left here is the first one published. It is featured in forthcoming issue of CCTV Image magazine. If you have any ideas for new images that we can create, do drop me a line. It’s an ongoing project.

Until next time; stay focused.

“Grumpy Old CCTV Consultant”

Welcome. It’s been a long time buzzing around my head and I’ve finally taken the plunge. Taking cues from popular television programmes (especially BBC’s “Grumpy Old Men” and Discovery’s “MythBusters”) I hope this blog will stir people. That’s because the subjects raised here are the ones that stir me in the world of CCTV and security; my longstanding profession.

I hope that you the readers and contributors will find that it’s thought-provoking, educational, discussion-provoking, sometimes surprising and, above all, useful. My intention is to post weekly, hopefully not weakly, so set your bookmarks, favourites and aggregators. Let’s make this business a better place to be.