Richard Chambers' vision for the future of CCTV in Auckland is clear. The police district commander would like to see cameras moving into suburbia, an electronic comfort blanket for those concerned about public safety.

As it turns out, Chambers' vision is clearer than almost anything you're going to see through the actual cameras. If Auckland has a surveillance future, the Herald has found Big Brother needs to get out of nappies.

Those concerns were voiced last year when it emerged that the council and police had entered an agreement marking out a path for the future of CCTV cameras in Auckland.

Documents showed an intent to meld the cameras spread across the city into a cohesive and merged web of electronic eyes. There was even exception made for evolving technology including "face recognition and licence plate recognition".

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The path forward required a "stocktake" of cameras, previously vested in the seven councils which preceded the sprawling Super City.

The agreement evoked a science fiction vision of an Auckland in which "specific individuals" suspected of criminal acts could be monitored, perhaps at the click of a mouse button, and automatically followed through city streets and transport networks by computer.

Well, for better or worse, it's not happening any time soon.

Herald inquiries have found advanced technology isn't installed, planned or possibly even necessary. Experts who dedicate a lot of thought to the complications of such technology say it gives Auckland time to build in safeguards which have escaped surveillance societies abroad.

We're so far from "facial recognition" that Auckland Council has only just worked out how many cameras it has. There are 3143 cameras spread across ferries, libraries, sporting grounds, trains and anywhere else the council has assets to protect.

Largely, the cameras record moments in the lives of Aucklanders which are never seen.

The purpose they serve is largely retrospective, needed only when problems occur and a visual record is searched for among images written to databanks rarely accessed.

Photo / Michael Craig
Photo / Michael Craig

Few are live cameras, such as those found in central Auckland. As the only truly high-density area in the city, they provide Auckland Council with the ability to manage large crowds around events, to monitor transport issues and, for police, to contribute to public order and safety.

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The police control room where the cameras are monitored is just across the hall from Chambers' top-floor office at Auckland Central police station. An entire wall is covered in screens, images from cameras scattered from the waterfront up to Karangahape Rd and slightly beyond.

"Obviously, given the spread of cameras is wide, our focus is on anything happening in public spaces."

He considers the cameras as one of a number of tools helping police.

"Our focus is on keeping Auckland a safe place. When incidents occur that require police investigation and follow-up, the cameras that we use are a great asset to us to resolve incidents when they occur."

Police allowed the Herald to film a "crime scenario" inside its control room of an armed robbery. An out-of-uniform officer walked out of a jewellery store and set off down Queen St, watched by the CCTV controller. It was a dark and rainy day, but the body shape and clothing was distinctive enough to track the suspect through a number of streets over the course of about 10 minutes.

In a real robbery, the CCTV operator would forecast the suspect's movements, relaying information to cars or officers ahead on an intercept path. The material, also, would have been of use when evidence was needed in court.

But a Big Brother system? The steps taken to clear the footage for use by the Herald dispel that myth. The Herald had agreed - in line with the police agreement with the council - to pixelate identifying images such as car numberplates and faces.

The 2-minute, 44 second video which accompanies this story online includes numerous clips from the crime scenario - but only about nine seconds of content and one licence plate which could breach the agreement. Yet, in the entire footage, there are hundreds of people and dozens of cars.

The quality was such that the camera was really only going to pick up the person on which it was focused. Even then, much of its value is extracted by the art of the operator rather than any computer-driven or technical science.

The real value comes retrospectively - gaining evidence rather than investigating or stopping crime.

Photo / Michael Craig
Photo / Michael Craig

"Absolutely there's an evidential value," says Chambers.

"To help us putting together step by step, if caught on camera, what has occurred and who is accountable. That helps us with the resolution of things occurring in public."

The statistics quoted by Chambers support this. He cites the cameras as helping in 43 arrests in 2013. "That's 43 people held accountable for criminal behaviour in the city."
There are no numbers on crime prevented as a result of the cameras.

Chambers: "I can't give you figures at the moment on how much crime is prevented because that's difficult to measure. What I can be absolutely confident of is it gives us the ability to intervene in some incidents early which prevents something more serious occurring."

Ask if he would like to see cameras expand into suburbia, and Chambers can't see why not.

"If you think about the opportunities now and into the future, they're probably endless. Our focus is absolutely prevention - keeping the city safe. So why wouldn't we continue to look for opportunities to keep an eye on activity in public?

"That's actually what the people of Auckland would want and expect - that we're here to make them be safe and feel safe so why wouldn't we ... look for opportunities to expand."

The question of expansion isn't being contemplated by Auckland Council, which makes the decisions. The police don't own their own cameras - they rely on using council equipment.

Council community empowerment manager Mark Evans says there's no plan for expansion. Even though a stocktake has been done, the cameras need an individual review as to their function and purpose. Reviewing the needs could actually see cameras removed, he said.

"We don't know until we've done a review of every single camera. What we've got is what we've got. There's no plan to expand. It's about looking at what we've got and making the best use of it serving the needs that exist."

The impulse might come from boards, rather than the council. "Boards don't really have that money."

If there were moves to put in a system which monitored public places, it would lead to an examination of the hoped-for outcome. There are other options for improving public safety - lighting, for example, or removal of graffiti to increase perceptions of safety.

Other options include returning spaces where people feel at risk to community use or forming neighbourhood support groups.

The council's security manager Brian Louden said much of the CCTV network was inherited and mismatched technology which would struggle to be linked. The agreement with police was "very high level" - a bureaucratic "wouldn't it be nice if we could do this".

The message, simply, is right now the council can't - and it doesn't seem inclined to do so in the near future.

Whether it be need or money, it means the largest city in New Zealand has time to put in place processes for the operation of cameras. Community concern has arisen with the absence or slow development of those processes in other jurisdictions - for example, the United Kingdom, where there is estimated to be one camera for every 14 people.

The benefit of time is something technology doesn't usually allow, according to University of Auckland associate professor and technologist Lech Janczewski.

He says humans have a pattern of allowing technology to develop beyond the customs or regulations needed to guide its use.

"We don't know how to use this technology as a civilisation."

Society needs to discuss and agree how new technology should be used, he says. It was important to understand new technology from a social perspective, rather than just that for which it was created.

Photo / Michael Craig
Photo / Michael Craig

CCTV cameras have some merits, but it is not just the technology over which the wider community must satisfy itself. Instead the protections around CCTV data need debate.
As an example, he points to the privacy and storage of information captured from the cameras. Is it hacker-proof? Who has access rights? How is it searched and who is it searched for?

The Privacy Commission was heavily involved in CCTV about a decade ago when there was an expansion of use.

Current privacy commissioner John Edwards says any further expansion into audio recording or facial recognition would lead to further involvement.

"I've never said CCTV cameras are a bad idea. It's how you deploy them, how you use them and how you maintain that social licence."

Social licence is the term being used to describe decisions having a wider community approval. "People are interested in how these decisions are made."

There's that saying: "If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear."

It gets marched out every time there's a question about surveillance. Ask Edwards what he thinks of it, and he responds: "Pants."

After a pause, he adds: "If you've got nothing to hide, why do you wear pants. I should not have to argue to protect my privacy. Someone should have to argue to take it [from] me. And once they've made the case, they need to act in a proportionate way."

The University of Auckland's Dr Agnieszka Leszczynski, a lecturer in geographic information, says there's no long-term evidence supporting claims that CCTV cameras improve public safety. Instead, camera placement has shown skews in the impact they have on particular communities.

Women, who might feel more vulnerable, might be so because of a "placebo safety" brought on by the presence of cameras.

Any place where a camera is considered for placement should be closely examined. Communities need to be involved in those conversations.

In Birmingham, England, an increase in CCTV placement turned out to result in targeting of areas where people either identified as Muslim or came from countries where Islam was a predominant religion.

"It was presented as a crime prevention measure. It was almost placed as a surveillance of particular kinds of people."

Have the discussion now, she says, and consider alternatives as well as motives.

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied