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Useless Security Camera

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Guys, what did I tell you about using the security cameras for staring contests?

Security cameras that would, if functioning, have captured images of the perpetrators, were actually non-functional. An issue encountered frequently by detectives solving crimes in modern-day settings, such as in Police Procedural shows.

Typical reasons include:

  • The camera was pointed in the wrong direction, whether by accident or by someone tampering with it.
  • The recording device the cameras are attached to stopped recording (back in the days of VCRs they commonly "ran out of tape").
  • The resolution of the picture is so low that the image is practically useless.
  • The camera wasn't plugged in.
  • The camera had been otherwise turned off by someone.
  • The perpetrators covered the camera's lens.
  • Just happened to be broken, especially if the writers aren't feeling creative.
  • Statistics show that having a camera deters some crime, and a broken camera that looks functional is cheaper than buying a working one or getting it fixed. Because of this commonly known fact, many businesses install empty casings that look like security cameras. However, you can also buy real cameras that are disguised as the phony ones to make sharp-eyed would-be crooks drop their guard and be caught on camera, like the security system equivalent to I Know You Know I Know.

Compare Insecurity Camera, where the cameras are stupid, and you're supposed to be able to avoid them. Another way of putting the difference is that Insecurity Camera is from the perspective of a (hopefully successful) trespasser while Useless Security Camera is from the perspective of guards, owners, and law enforcement having to catch a successful trespasser.

This frequently happens in detective and police procedural shows, in part to prevent the detectives from having an easy way to find the perp. (Often, the less time left in an episode, the more likely the camera is to work. This would be a prime example of Spoiled by the Format.)

Of course, even a good camera system can be useless if you've employed a Surveillance Station Slacker to monitor it. Compare Camera Spoofing.


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    Comic Strips 
  • In Bus Stop, Jason tries to find someone that he knew rode on a specific bus on a specific date, so he gets in touch with the bus company to try to look at their security camera footage. Turns out the bus camera only turns on if the driver activates the emergency switch. No emergencies happened in that particular bus on that particular date, so there was no footage to see.
  • Dilbert: The boss gets some fake security cameras so that he can pretend to watch the engineers in the hopes of making them work harder. When Dilbert points out that the engineers might object to the idea of being watched, he changes his mind and tells him to hide the fake cameras so that the engineers don't know that the boss is pretending to spy on them. Dilbert throws the fake cameras out.

    Fan Works 
  • Power Chord: High School Musical: Zig-Zagged. Luna and Sam go into the security room to look at the footage to figure out what is going on with the school, but due to Luan's invisibility powers, they can't see who is responsible. However, the security footage still lets them figure out what is going on.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Joe Darley, Nick Hume's son's murderer in Death Sentence would probably have gotten a much larger sentence, thus preventing the plot of the movie, if the gas station's camera at the scene of the crime was working.

  • In Every Breath You Take, one of the reasons the police got stuck on investigating Virginia's death is because despite it taking place in the Met during a huge gala, there's no surveillance footage available that might tell them who followed Virginia up to the roof. The head of security explains to Laurie that because the gala was being held on the first floor and the higher floors were closed off to the guests (as a trustee of the museum, Virginia could go where she liked), the cameras on those floors were turned off to run systems maintenance.
  • In Rivers of London, the first murder is caught on CCTV, but a key event in the lead-up to it, vital to figuring out who did it and why, occurred just outside the camera's field of view.

    Live-Action TV 
  • One Adam-12 episode had a car thief tampering with a parking garage‚Äôs new camera and then vandalizing the sign about the camera to taunt the owner.
  • Subverted on American Gods (2017). In a flashback, Shadow tries to cheat in a casino but is warned by Laura to walk away before the casino has him arrested. He thought that he positioned himself in a spot where the security cameras could not see him but those were the cameras he was meant to spot. He missed a number of other hidden cameras who were recording everything he did, and various casino patrons around him were actually casino staff observing him.
  • In one episode of Breaking Bad, DEA Agent Hank Schrader is trying to interrogate a gas station clerk to find out who sold her some meth. When he finally realizes she knows nothing, he looks up and asks if the security camera is regularly on. It isn't.
  • Often happens in CSI. Usually whenever crimes take place in corner shops the owner will imply that it's not a real camera (or that it doesn't work) without even having to say it.
  • These incidents happen fairly often in CSI: NY.
    • Zigzagged in the B plot of "A Man a Mile." Stella and Aiden ask a nightclub owner for his security camera footage to find out what happened to a 16-year-old girl who was at his club. He says he doesn't have cameras, that they'd be bad for business. So the detectives get footage from neighboring businesses... one of which shows exactly what they need to nail their suspect.
    • In "Some Buries Bones," a thief wears a special raincoat designed to reflect light into and dazzle the security cameras, which showed the suspect's movements only as a vague, glaring-bright blob.
  • Forever: The cameras at the 11th precinct and the OCME never catch anything useful, with bad guys doing things like leaving a human heart on Hanson's desk in "The Frustrating Thing About Psychopaths" or stealing Henry's autopsy tools, using them in a murder, and then putting them back in "Skinny Dipper" yet never being caught on camera. Averted once in "The Ecstasy of Agony" when Henry is kidnapped by a new love interest's stalker, and Jo and Hanson find the whole thing was recorded on the station's exterior security cameras, including an image that allows them to track down the kidnapper and rescue Henry. (They were useless in preventing the kidnapping or allowing anyone to spot it happening at the time, however.)
  • Subverted in Grimm: they couldn't find the perp with the security cams, but they were able to identify the murder victim and the people standing closest to her so they could question them about the crime. They were also able to nudge an uncooperative witness by reminding him he'd been caught on camera.
  • The BBC TV drama Hot Money was about a group of cleaners who plotted to rob an outstation of the Royal Mint where they worked. The scam involved disabling security cameras whilst notes destined for destruction were stolen from the vault where they awaited incineration. See Real life, below.
  • Double Subverted in one Law & Order episode, in which a store camera is both active and shows the killer dragging his victims to where he kills them. The only reason it doesn't get used is because the killer had the video and the trick police used to stall him so he couldn't destroy the evidence before a search warrant arrived was more than the judge was willing to let slide.
  • An episode of Nash Bridges had Harvey and Evan show up a little too late to prevent a murder and the suspect making a clean getaway. However, Harvey spots a security camera and says they can use the tape to finger their suspect. When reporting their findings to Nash, Harvey reveals that the camera was only hooked up to a monitor and there's no tape to review.
  • In an episode of A Touch of Frost, Frost asks Toolan if he managed to get the evidence from the camera for a murder that had happened in an alley, only to be told that it was facing the wrong way.
  • The Wire: When Kima and McNulty start tracking down the Barksdale gang's Burner Phones buyer, they first hit a dead end at the Mondo Mart store chain, where they record over their CCTV tapes every week if there's no major incident, so they go to the only off-brand store they know of. That store in turn burns through their tapes daily, but with the help of local law enforcement, they learn that this being a known issue in town, the insurance agent across the street from the store has one camera turned toward the shop's entrance.

    Video Games 
  • Hitman (2016): Destroying the security footage makes all cameras in the level inactive, meaning they no longer spot you and lower your score. The latter is completely averted when playing on Professional Mode, however, which allows cameras to alert nearby guards if you trespass, often prompting the player to restart.
  • Metal Gear Solid has one such camera in the entire game outside the Metal Gear Control Room (where the PAL key is used) which is only connected to a monitor in the adjacent room. Unlike every other camera in the game, running into its viewpoint doesn't cause an alert.
  • PAYDAY: The Heist: The security cameras draw cops to the heisters that they watch as long as they are active, but are effectively useless at spotting heisters in stealth. PAYDAY 2 subverts it: security cameras take time to spot heisters and break stealth, during which the targeted heister can just move out of the way or duck behind cover. The basic security cameras are easy to destroy, which will be picked up on by guards but also make great guard lures. However, the Titan Camera on Mayhem difficulty and above are indestructible.
  • Some of the surveillance cameras in Splinter Cell: Double Agent will be turned off on lower difficulties. Occasionally you'll encounter a non-infrared camera in an area that's too dark for it, rendering it unable to see you (and of course, you can shoot out lights to render some cameras useless too).

    Visual Novels 
  • Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney's built for DS case, Rise from the Ashes, features a murder that supposedly occurred in a room with a security camera. That's a conveniently easy stroke of luck... apart from the fact that said camera constantly pans back and forth and therefore misses all the important points. Plus, the camera doesn't show the floor either, which fills the entire room with blind spots. This is actually pointed out in the game's dialogue and is how the supposed "victim" managed to get out of the room without being picked up on camera. It also doesn't help that a big wooden, maniacal mascot that someone just had to go and place in said room constantly keeps covering up the faces of the people on the video in an almost parodic fashion.

    Western Animation 
  • On the Apple & Onion episode "Music Store Thief", the pair set up surveillance cameras at a music store to try and catch whoever is stealing all the instruments. Unfortunately, Apple aimed all the cameras at one guitar, the most expensive item in the store. When the cameras zoom out, everything else has been stolen.
  • Used then subverted in Arthur: A store that Buster steals an action figure from has a broken camera, but Buster thought it was working and confesses.
  • In Ed, Edd n Eddy, the three set up a hidden camera to spy on Kevin. It was "hidden" right in front of his door with only a twig as camouflage. It doesn't last long.
    Eddy: Zoom in! Zoom in! Where'd you hide the camera?
    Ed: (Dramatically) Only the Claw knows...
  • A variation with the problem on the display monitor end in the Kim Possible episode "Sick Day". Kim is guarding an invention while suffering from a cold and sets a box of tissues in front of the display screen just in time to block the view of Drakken and Shego arriving.
  • Subverted in Phineas and Ferb: A traffic cam caught not only the boys' inventions but Perry's comings and goings for the OWCA.

    Real Life 
  • Common in Real Life. Many retail stores use dummy cameras to discourage criminals, but these are usually in tandem with a few working ones. In fact, the reason why most in-store CCTV footage is crap, blurry, and grainy is that the store owners are cheapskates who are recycling the same batch of video cassettes over and over again until they're over-recorded so often they are literally worn out. The strategy is to put at least one fake camera (sometimes nothing more than a plastic shell) in plain sight where everybody and their grandma has no choice but to see it at least once while they're in the store. Then, with that as a distraction and/or deterrent, a number of cleverly hidden cameras watch you completely out of sight and mind. It's expensive, but annual losses from stolen merchandise and/or vandalism can potentially be cut by thousands.
  • Truth In Television in Britain (especially London) where there's the highest concentration of security cameras in the world, but most of them are of incredibly low quality and pointed where they're only of what little use they are for protecting their owners' property (rather than there in case some poor Victim Of The Week flees that way).
  • The UK also experimented with Automatic Numberplate Recognition cameras on city streets, but initial hopes of using them to crack down on uninsured drivers and other low-grade motoring offences were thwarted when the police discovered that nearly one car in ten was being flagged up. Even if the OCR technology or the Police National Computer's records were 100% reliable and accurate, and even the finest systems that money can buy throw up false positives every so often, actually reacting to the information received would have been like trying to bail out the sea. The ANPR cameras are now only used to look for vehicles that have been reported stolen or in connection to another offence.
  • One African expedition claimed to have found and filmed a mokele-mbembe (a sauropod-like cryptid)... too bad they forgot to take the cap off the lens while filming.
  • The background to the TV drama Hot Money was a real-life case at a backwater, relatively low-security, outstation of the Bank of England where old time-served banknotes were stored prior to destruction. The cleaning staff discovered a security gap they could exploit — as even bank vaults need to be hoovered and dusted, and who really watches lowly menials like cleaners? In the storage areas, one of the two cleaners innocently chose to give the security camera a quick dust and a polish of the camera lens. That's their job, right? While Cleaner A was polishing the lens of the camera with a cloth, and blocking its view of what else was going on whilst merely doing her job, cleaner B was stuffing thousands of pounds worth of five and ten pound notes into the black bin-bag attached to her trolley. (As the notes were recalls which were intended for destruction in an incinerator, no accurate count or check was made of them: this became pretty much the perfect crime in Real Life, and was only discovered because one of the perpetrators was busted for an entirely different offence).

Alternative Title(s): Useless Security Cameras