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CCTV Surveillance: Security vs Privacy

24 March 2019
Information is key, and in this day and age personal data is gold. It is valuable, and because it is valuable it is susceptible to being ill-used.

When I first heard of the Vumacam CCTV cameras that were being rolled out in some Johannesburg suburbs I thought: “Great! This is fantastic news!” I did not even know how the system worked at the time, but my instinctive reaction was the cameras would certainly be beneficial. My reasoning could be based on the fact that I live in a notoriously crime-ridden country and more specifically, Johannesburg. Coupled with having survived criminal incidents in the past, I welcomed the idea. 

It’s no secret; crime is a big problem and it affects all of us in some way or another, daily. It’s a constant threat, looming over us, knowing that any minute something could drastically change our life. When I heard of surveillance cameras that have super-sophisticated technology that can, for instance, identify stolen vehicles, I was blown away.

Here’s how the Vumacam system works: Vumacam owns the cameras and feed that they then sell off to various private security companies that buy the feed according to the areas that they take care of. This automatically excludes townships, or relatively lower LSM neighbourhoods that cannot afford and do not have private security companies operating in their areas. But, according to Vumacam, they ideally would like their cameras rolled out across the entire Johannesburg region, and you have to start somewhere right? 

But what’s become worrisome is the gathering of personal data, the idea of the entire city one day being covered with cameras. Somebody would have to be watching this, and who is that somebody?

Information is key, and in this day and age personal data is gold. It is valuable, and because it is valuable it is susceptible to being ill-used. Like the guys that robbed our crew. What are the odds, while covering a story on security surveillance cameras, of us getting robbed of our camera equipment, laptops and cell phones? It was one of the scariest moments to see strangers walk into the producers’ house, carrying a gun. According to the footage we saw after the robbery, the guys drove around us a few times, then two of them where dropped off where they stood under a tree and watched us film the interview. In that way, they had time to assess us, how many of us there were, whether we could be armed, what the possible threats would be. Gathering information. 

Those are the potential dangers of being watched 24/7; having your comings and goings documented. Information about your routine can be used for criminal activities, too.

What was also disturbing is that a lot of people don’t seem to know what the poles with cameras sprouting in their suburbs are for. The spot where we were filming in Blairgowrie has one of the poles that have been erected by Vumacam. But Vumacam is yet to consult with the neighbourhood residents’ association (they are set for a meeting next month). To put the poles up before getting the go-ahead seems presumptuous. And should we trust a private company with our personal information? If it is in exchange for security, many may be happy to do so. 

Following that traumatic armed robbery, I personally would feel safer having CCTV cameras around. It’s unfortunately the low we have reached, that we would be willing to give up some personal privacy for safety purposes. Should the system work as smoothly as it currently seems to be operating, it could go a long way, provided the information is not ill-used.

Written by: Masa Kekana, Guest Presenter