The diversity and flexibility of CCTV systems have transformed the way we engineer business security in the 21st century. And the revolution isn’t over, either.
But as with every technical field, the difficulty of making the right choice has grown exponentially with the number of available options.
Choosing the best CCTV system for an office has been complicated by the presence of countless commercial options, growing regulatory volume, and increased device and system complexity.
Many potential CCTV users don’t reap the benefits of this flexibility. Analysis paralysis gobbles up their good intentions. At best, they just end up overspending. In the worst cases, they give up altogether and trick themselves into figuring out a good excuse for compromising the safety of their staff, their clients and, ultimately, their business.
So how does one break free from this endless loop of “what does this acronym stand for and do I actually need it?”
A Quick Guide to Compromising
When faced with analysis paralysis, I always go back to my first lessons in engineering. The best choice, the saying goes, is the compromise between what you need, what’s available, and what you can afford.
That’s what it ultimately boils down to.
It’s tempting to start with the product catalogue and look for the cheapest thing that will suit you, but nine times out of ten that will not yield the most cost-efficient solution.
Instead of starting with the product catalogue, start with what you need. The product catalogue is something that you should peruse only later, in order to figure out what’s available and what you can afford.
What You Need
Defining your requirements is the first and most important step in drafting a sound security strategy. How you implement it – what cameras you choose, what software, what procedures – can always be fixed, but mistakes are done in the requirements stage is with you forever.
When it comes to CCTV cameras, the Home Office recommends a two-step process for drafting requirements.
First, you should define and clarify:
- the areas and assets which you want to protect
- the security problems that you are likely to face
- the stakeholders in your security strategy
- your criteria for success.
For example, if you work with sensitive customer data, you may be concerned about laptops or hard drives being stolen from your office. Or, if your office is located in a high criminality area, you may be concerned about your staff being physically assaulted in the office or in the parking lot.
The criteria for what constitutes successfully addressing each security issue depends on many factors. For example, if your concern is for the safety of your staff, there is no question that successfully addressing this concern means deterring assault.
If you are concerned about important customer data being stolen, it may be particularly important to be able to identify whoever attempted to steal it, in addition to preventing them from stealing it in the first place.
CCTV cameras are likely to be one of the means to deal with these issues, but a CCTV camera alone cannot help you with anything except surveillance. It won’t keep the doors locked or make the windows impenetrable. That being said, for many small businesses, a good access control system and a visible CCTV camera is often sufficient.
Second, you should define what capabilities your CCTV system needs to have in order to meet your security requirements.
This is a pretty complex topic, but it essentially boils down to answering four questions:
– What and do I need to see and when?
– Why do I need to see it?
– What responsibilities do I have?
What and when you need to see is something that you define in terms of location, detail, and time of day. For example, you may want to observe who enters your office through each access way, or detect if someone is present in the lobby, or observe and recognise someone is in the parking lot through motion detection.
These details are important because they dictate:
- How wide an area the right CCTV camera should cover? (A small room? Hallway? Parking lot?)
- How much detail it should provided? (Just enough to see if someone is present? Small details, to allow identification?)
- What conditions your CCTV cameras need to function under? (Natural lighting? Ambient lighting during the night? Complete darkness during the night?)
Why you need to see it is important for two reasons. First, it will help you clarify your security procedures. Second, some CCTV cameras have special features for certain scenarios.
For example, you may want to monitor who enters the reception area of your office as a measure of general security. However, if you are specifically concerned about specific, known persons, a CCTV system with facial recognition features may be a more expensive, but very useful option for you.
Finally, the responsibilities you have are also important when choosing a CCTV system.
Under law, your most important responsibilities are:
- Ensuring that your staff, customers and visitors are aware that they are being surveilled.
- Protecting data against theft and unwarranted disclosure, and erase it as soon as it is no longer necessary.
- Providing anyone who asks with the images in which they are present
- Providing CCTV images to the police or other state authorities, if they are requested in a lawful manner
Protecting against data theft and unwarranted disclosure is extremely important because you are legally responsible for safeguarding the CCTV images in your possession. Choosing CCTV systems from manufacturers with a good track record of security, using software with strong authentication and encryption, is your best bet in this area.
Equally important are data management options, such as automatic and secure erasure. If you have only one or two CCTVs, with footage that you review regularly, manually erasing records is enough. Otherwise, automatic data management features may save you a lot of storage space – and legal headaches.
Under law, if you have CCTV footage of anyone, they can request that you give it to them, and you are legally required to comply.
If you expect only infrequent requests, or if your office has few employees and visitors, pretty much any CCTV system will do. However, if you have many visitors (and especially if their visits are frequent and not always logged) or employees, it may be worth looking into a system with advanced searching and export features.
Finally, under certain conditions, you may be required to share CCTV footage with the police. The Home Office maintains a guide on police requirements for digital CCTV systems, which covers everything that you need to know on this topic. If you install a CCTV camera for security reasons, you should make sure that the one you choose does tick all the boxes.
What’s Available: From Requirements to Implementation
If you made it this far, you should have a pretty clear idea of what your security requirements are. You can reach the product catalogues now. This is where we start using them.
Your security requirements should allow you to define the technical requirements for your CCTV system in terms of five major areas:
- Video quality and field of view
- Camera type
- Environmental conditions
- Image processing features
Image quality and field of view is the first factor that you need to consider.
When we talk about image quality, we’re primarily talking about image resolution.
Image quality is the decisive factor when it comes to how much you can zoom and focus the image. There is a point past which zooming in won’t provide any additional detail. The higher the resolution, the farther that point is – but, despite what you see in detective films, you will eventually reach that point.
What resolution do you need? The rule of thumb is “the higher, the better”, but you don’t always need the best. A VGA or SVGA camera – which is 15 year-old technology at this point – is enough to observe a small reception area, or to identify a person in front of a reception desk.
The camera’s field of view (sometimes called viewing angle or angle of view) is the other thing that you need to consider. Just like your eyes, a camera can only cover a certain area – under a certain angle – of its surroundings.
You can see some things to the right or to the left of the screen right now, but you can’t see all the way to your left or right. And you certainly can’t see what’s happening behind you.
CCTV cameras can cover anything from a narrow field (45-60 degrees) to their entire surroundings (360 degrees). But there’s a caveat here as well: for a fixed resolution, the wider the field of view is, the fewer details you can observe.
It’s important to consider the field of view when deciding how you place the cameras. But it’s also important to remember that a field of view is only as wide as the obstacles around it. Just like human eyes, cameras cannot see around corners.
Camera type is an important factor to consider because it has implications that go beyond the realm of technology.
“Camera type” is somewhat of a weasel word – it’s mostly a marketing term, without a specific technical connotation. It mostly refers to the shape of the camera and to how it’s mounted, but other factors are thrown in as well. The most common types you’ll encounter are:
- Bullet CCTV cameras. These are the most commonly deployed type of CCTV camera, make them cheap and instantly recognisable. This contributes both to your customers’ and visitors’ feeling of security, and of your security system’s deterrence effect. They are fixed and have of view comparable to those of a human.
- The point, Tilt and Zoom (PTZ) CCTV cameras are mobile cameras which can turn around and zoom in and out. They can be aimed at specific objects or persons, in order to observe them in greater detail and identify them. Or, they can be programmed to the pan and tilt over a wider area, as part of a pre-programmed surveillance routine.
- 360-degree cameras are exactly what they sound like – panoramic cameras, with a field of view of 360 degrees. They can cover an entire area, but usually at a fairly low level of detail, and they have limited zooming and focus capabilities. Consequently, they are often used in conjunction with one or more PTZ cameras.
- Dome cameras are CCTV cameras housed in a tinted, protective enclosure. Originally, the tinted enclosure was meant to obscure the camera’s objective, so that an intruder can’t tell which way it’s facing. But manufacturers found a lot of additional uses for that housing, including physical and thermal protection.
- Covert and desktop CCTV cameras are cameras designed to be concealed. Generally, this is not something that you can use – you are legally obligated to inform your staff and customers that they are being surveilled. But under specific conditions, and only temporarily, such as during an internal investigation, you are allowed to record certain persons without their knowledge. If you need this, the CCTV industry has your back!
Environmental conditions generally encompass two classes of factors: ambient light level and environmental conditions.
The image sensors in CCTV cameras need light in order to show any picture. Some cameras have embedded IR LEDs, which can illuminate an area up to some specific distance. That way, the camera can still be used at night, or in areas without any ambient lighting, such as windowless basements.
Many (but not all) IR and night-vision cameras can adjust the illumination level automatically, turning on the IR LEDs when it’s dark and turning them off again when they are no longer needed. Manufacturers typically call these “24/7” or “day and night” CCTV cameras.
As for environmental conditions, like most electronic devices, CCTV cameras are meant to be used under specific environmental conditions. Some of them are only for indoors use. Cameras for outdoor use can withstand typical British weather, temperature differences and dust. CCTV cameras that can withstand even more extreme conditions do exist, but they tend to be more expensive.
Image processing features are a matter of increasing importance because they can simplify compliance efforts and strengthen your security response capabilities.
Most CCTV systems today come with software that allows you to play, pause, search and export footage. This is typically sufficient for small businesses. If you need to deal with high volumes of data, a CCTV system with advanced cataloguing and search features may be more suitable.
Advanced features, such as automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) or facial recognition, are useful when integrated with advanced access logging/control and security response systems. They come at a price, and not all of it is obvious and upfront: vehicle access logs, for example, are one more piece of personal data that you process and, thus, one more piece of legal responsibility.
Connectivity is the last aspect to consider. Fortunately, this is very simple – all cameras fall into three classes:
- Wired cameras connect to your network via cables – typically Ethernet or fibre, as most cameras today are digital. Wired connectivity offers very high bandwidth and, thus, allows for very detailed footage – but cables are cumbersome to deploy, and they can be cut!
- Wireless cameras connect to your network via Wi-Fi or other wireless protocols (but note that they may still require a power cable!). This makes a wireless CCTV installation less complex and cheaper to deploy.
- Local-storage cameras do not have any connectivity and instead record on embedded USB sticks or SD cards. This mode of operation is typically employed only by covert cameras.
What You Can Afford
There is one last constraint that will help you choose the right CCTV cameras for your office: your budget.
Budget is something that you have some control over, but as you well know, you can’t always afford everything. Any security system will eventually be a compromise.
What’s important is to make sure you are on the safe side of that compromise – that you choose a solution that fits your budget, but does not jeopardise the safety of your customers and staff.
Oftentimes, the right compromise is reached through well-defined requirements and efficient technical solutions, rather than the newest and most expensive gear.
This is why the process we’ve outlined should be iterative. Finding the right CCTV cameras will occasionally require going back to the drawing board – but there are enough options, and so much flexibility in this market, that there is always a solution.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Choosing the best CCTV camera for an office is primarily a matter of compromise – of finding the right spot between what you need, what’s available, and what you can afford.
The best way to find that spot is to start with your requirements. Every business has a unique combination of assets and concerns. Finding the right CCTV camera is an exercise in recognising these assets and concerns, and matching them against the right technical solutions.
Ideally, you should leave the last part to professionals. In the long run, it will turn up to be not only safer but also, ironically, cheaper to let professionals handle your CCTV system choice and installation. Take a look at our CCTV installation services and let’s talk about keeping your office and your budget safe!