Beware the threat of crimefighting CCTV cameras: experts
Cameras rolled out across SA may be a good crime-busting tool, but they come at a worrying cost to privacy, they say
The fight against crime has gone hi-tech with the rollout of thousands of CCTV security cameras across public spaces and open areas in Gauteng.
But, while the potential to address crime in the province and the country is recognised, criminologists and technology experts warn that they pose a potential threat to people’s right to privacy.
Hundreds of the security cameras, which are linked to private CCTV surveillance companies, have already been installed in Johannesburg, with an estimated 15,000 cameras set to be erected within months across Pretoria and Johannesburg.
Armed with software that allows for vehicle licence plate recognition, and linked to portions of police databases that contain details on hijacked and stolen vehicles, the camera system is, according to operators, starting to pay dividends.
Rob Nichol, managing director of Red Surveillance – one of several private CCTV security companies using the vehicle licence plate recognition system – said that on average they helped in the recovery of up to 10 stolen or hijacked vehicles a month.
While the infrastructure was owned by another private company, they had access to 750 cameras and the software to monitor public spaces in the Johannesburg areas of Melville, Blairgowrie, Craighall, Hurlingham, Vandia Grove, Dunkeld and Athol.
“The information which we gather is limited to the vehicle itself. It is only the registration plate section of the police database that we can access. All this information gives us is details on whether the vehicle is stolen or hijacked or is being sought for having been used in the commission of a crime.
“We have no details on the owners of the vehicle, who the people who may be in the vehicle at the time are, or who may have been involved in an alleged crime.”
Nichol said that once they detected a vehicle listed as stolen or hijacked, they flagged it and alerted armed security companies and the police.
“The cameras can be used to track the vehicles as they move through different suburbs and help authorities locate the vehicle.”
He said they also used the cameras for post-crime events such as helping to track potential suspects who had committed crimes such as robberies.
“We also monitor for suspicious or unusual behaviour and alert the police and armed response to this.”
Nichol said the footage – which is strictly controlled and falls within the boundaries of the Protection of Personal Information Act – is provided to the police to help bolster their investigations, and to prosecutors.
However, UCT criminologist Simon Howell said the technology and system were a “double-edged sword”.
“It may provide a feeling of safety, forestall crime and be useful in crimefighting strategies, but you lose a lot in terms of privacy.
“The impact of surveillance on people must not be underestimated. People must not get caught up in the rhetoric of it being used to fight crime. Instead, people should be looking at ways of addressing what drives one to commit crime, such as poverty.”
Data and technology expert Toby Shapshak said that, while on face value it seemed like a good crimefighting initiative, there were a number of worrying privacy concerns.
“The primary one is what do the people who have access to this data do with it, how secure is it [the data], will people now be stopped and harassed on the street, and who else has access to this?”
He said what was concerning was the devolution of the responsibilities of the police.
“The role of police is clear and that is the protection of citizens. Private security companies are incentivised by profits. One needs to look carefully as to whether the responsibilities of the SAPS are being outsourced to private companies, and if so, why.
“The details of vehicles are taken down by people and are open to input errors. What will happen if the licence disk flagged has been entered onto the police database incorrectly and there is a confrontation between private security guards and innocent civilians? What are the consequences if something goes wrong during this confrontation?”
And, Shapshak said, concerns being raised around the CCTV systems need to include what private security companies, which are guarding housing and business park estates, are doing when it comes to barring people from entering unless their vehicle and driver’s licence details have been scanned.
“There is lots of personal information on driver’s licences, including people’s signatures. No one knows how this data is stored, why it is being sought, what it is being used for, and on whose authority it is being obtained.”