Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Spy network posing as CCTV

50 comments
The Auckland Council wants to link all CCTV camera networks across the region in order to improve public safety. Photo / Steven McNicholl
The Auckland Council wants to link all CCTV camera networks across the region in order to improve public safety. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Nothing quite singles out a member of the baby-boomer generation from the Xs and Ys as our differing attitudes to privacy.

True, it still seems to be common ground that it is beyond the pale for health professionals to email x-ray pictures to journalists of an eel lodged up the backside of a careless out-patient.

It's also still frowned upon for government departments to sloppily email confidential client files to complete strangers.

But tomorrow, when Auckland councillors sit down to consider creating a regional wide co-ordinated spy camera network from the CCTV set-ups inherited from the legacy councils, I suspect the big concern will be costs, not the inherent threat to individual privacy that such a proposal still worries an oldie like myself.

Even the executive summary sounds like an extract from George Orwell's novel, 1984. "The purpose of this report is to outline the issues and opportunities involved in using closed circuit television (CCTV) as a tool to improve public safety."

It's the saccharine Newspeak so beloved of Big Brother's helpers.

Orwell was writing from the ruins of a Europe not just shattered by the excesses of Hitler's totalitarian nightmare, but learning to co-exist with Stalin's equally monstrous regime. The Big Brother of Orwell's imagination, spying on and manipulating every citizen, was just a refinement on reality. As a result, if I spot a CCTV camera in a public space, I think Big Brother, get a proper job.

The generation Xs and Ys are more likely to raise their mixer cans and give it a drunken grin. And why wouldn't they? Chances are, they've already revealed the minutest details of their lives in an on-going serial on Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, then 25, summed up the change a couple of years ago when he claimed the rise of social networking online meant that people no longer have an expectation of privacy.

Privacy was no longer the social norm. "People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time."

With more than one billion people active Facebook users, a vast number of world citizens seem to agree.

Meanwhile, back in Auckland, if they can break away from their Facebooking and tweeting, Auckland councillors will be briefed on progress on developing guidelines for use of CCTV cameras in public spaces and a memorandum of understanding with the police. All the usual issues are there: privacy, who will pay, who will monitor, what will the information be used for, how long will it be stored and so on.

Regardless of my Orwellian fears, I still find the practical reasons advanced for more CCTV spying unconvincing. The officials tell the councillors "there is an increasing demand for CCTV as a crime prevention tool" and it "is an increasingly popular community safety tool that is seen to play a part in enhancing both perceptions of safety and crime prevention".

But note how they don't say spy cameras actually prevent crime. They just enhance the perception. In other words, people have been talked into believing they do prevent crime, so they feel safer.

An earlier report to councillors, in May this year, spelt out this difference between perception and reality.

While acknowledging CCTV systems in public spaces "are generally effective in increasing perceptions of safety ... the effectiveness of CCTV in actually reducing a wide range of crime in public places is questionable".

It pointed to United Kingdom research indicating "a modest effect on reducing crime in public spaces" and that CCTV was most effective in reducing crime in car parks. Australian research, the report added, indicates CCTV "is effective at detecting violent crime, [but] it is not an effective prevention tool."

This echoes other data such as the 2005 British Home Office research paper monitoring 15 spy camera installations that concluded they'd failed to achieve their goal of reducing crime and were "an ineffective" tool. The author of this research, criminology professor Martin Gill, said the installations had also failed to "make people feel safer."

We're told that Aucklanders do feel safer thanks to our installation, though where this judgment comes from is unclear. At the risk of whistling in a gale, could we at least have some real evidence. If we are to persevere with these expensive spy systems, can we actually have some proof we're getting value for money.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

Read more by Brian Rudman

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a1 at 22 Apr 2014 01:53:54 Processing Time: 1904ms