How CCTV surveillance poses a threat to privacy in South Africa
Locational privacy is a fairly new and novel aspect of privacy rights. It refers to the right of people to move about freely, without having their movements tracked.
But as CCTV cameras become more widespread in public spaces for use in a range of functions such as crime-fighting, it’s becoming more difficult for people to protect this kind of privacy in public spaces.
The cameras, linked to a display monitors, can be used to monitor human movements in particular spaces, including streets and shopping centres. A video recorder can also be added to record activities. But, the problem with CCTV is always the human capacity to process the information gleaned from the cameras. The cameras can only film fixed areas. Unless they are ubiquitous, they cannot be used to track movements.
The need for human monitoring places a natural limit on the analysis of camera footage. But, with digital tools of analysis, this is changing. When linked to a computer loaded with software capable of algorithmic analysis, huge amounts of footage can be analysed. These camera based surveillance systems can capture information about a person’s physical location. Some may only provide real time information, while others may record information for further analysis.
But governments of a more authoritarian bent can misuse this information to establish people’s movements, political activities and associations. People may not participate as robustly in democratic life as they would if they feel that they are being watched, and their movements tracked.
Invasive forms of data analysis such as number plate and facial recognition are being introduced in South African cities without any public debate about the implications for privacy in public spaces. Likewise, there’s no debate about about their implications for the ability of citizens to practice a range of rights in these spaces, such as the right to assemble.
Increasingly, CCTV cameras are becoming a “normal” feature of public life, tracking peoples’ movements as a matter of course. Video analysis tools also allow for more sophisticated analyses of footage.
Computer analysis enables CCTV to be turned into “smart dataveillance” devices (that conduct surveillance through the collection and computerised analysis of data), which make individuals and their movements more visible to the state. These are meant to assist in “smart” policing, whereby police use data tools to enhance the effectiveness of policing.
Another example is facial recognition technologies. These can be used to identify a particular person from a facial database. Potentially, these technologies can, and are, being used to identify people engaging in politically activities, such as protests. This triggers concerns that governments may be tempted to use them for anti-democratic purposes.
South Africa has followed international trends in street-level surveillance and embraced technologies whose affect on crime fighting and intelligence work are, at best, unclear and contested. International academic research points to CCTV systems being most effective in specific contexts, such as parking lots, and least effective in open spaces.
Other kinds of crime such as white collar crime and domestic crime, are not recorded by street cameras, which perpetuates an ideology of crime being street crime perpetrated by strangers.
Critics have also blamed the use of CCTV systems for displacing crime, rather than deterring it. Where reductions in crime levels have taken place because of CCTV, they were localised and often not statistically significant.
The difficulties of assessing the impacts of CCTV on crime is made harder by the fact that local authorities have not been undertaking independent impact assessments (including on privacy). This means that the public is forced to rely on the state’s version of events, which for public relations purposes, emphasises the positive impacts. Yet, in Cape Town in 2015 for instance, the police were criticised for making only 107 arrests following 2640 criminal incidents caught on camera.
In 2016, the City of Johannesburg announced that it was rolling out smart CCTV cameras complete, with automatic number plate and facial recognition technologies, as part of its ‘safe cities’ initiative.
Yet at the time of writing, the City had enacted no requirement for signage at the entrance to an area under CCTV surveillance – a key privacy protection requirement. The City was in the process of finalising a policy on the roll-out of CCTVs, coupled with a master plan, but these were still at draft stage, pointing to the fact that the technology had run ahead of the policy.
CCTV rollouts tend to “follow the money”. In other words, they tend to follow patterns of wealth in the major metropolitan cities in South Africa. This contributes to the enclosure of city spaces by private capital, and consequently to the privatisation of public spaces and the reproduction of spacial inequalities.
It’s not at all clear if the growing capacity of local governments to collect street-level data on peoples’ movements is making a substantial contribution to policing, as the police do not use this data routinely.
The risk of dumbing down policing
Technology is being used as a silver bullet for policing of public spaces, when more basic interventions may be more appropriate (such as improving investigative techniques), risks dumbing down policing. Yet, at the same time, the regulation of CCTV for its impacts on privacy is lagging behind the actual rollout of the technology.
Data-driven surveillance tools, such as smart CCTV, consistently over promise but under deliver in fighting crime. Yet, governments are adept at creating panic about crime to obscure these failings. People’s fear of crime, and their need to feel protected from it, should not stop them from asking the critical questions that need to be asked.
This is an edited excerpt from the author’s latest book, Stopping the Spies: Constructing and Resisting the Surveillance State, published by Wits University Press. This article was originally published in The Conversation. You can read the article here.