Picture: 123RF/pixinoo
Picture: 123RF/pixinoo

Motorists and pedestrians making their way around SA’s biggest city will soon be monitored 24/7, with no way of opting out. Thousands of CCTV cameras will capture every movement.

This is the future, says Vumacam, a subsidiary of internet fibre giant Vumatel and the company responsible for the rollout. And it’s necessary, it says, if Joburg is to shed its image as one of the more dangerous cities in Africa.

Already, there are more than 1,200 cameras in the city. By this time next year, that number is set to have grown to more than 10,000.

And lest the project be accused of serving the moneyed — the 60 areas in which it has been rolled out are traditionally affluent — Vumacam chief commercial officer Ashleigh Parry says the company is in talks with other corporates to subsidise a rollout in lower-LSM areas.

The system works like this: Vumacam installs the cameras and links them to its fibre network. Local security companies can then opt in to access the live feed in their areas of operation, allowing them to pick up on unusual behaviour. And sophisticated software will identify number plates, instantly picking up whether a vehicle is stolen or wanted by police.

What determines "strange" behaviour is decided by the security company itself, says Parry. It could be someone strolling down the street outside normal working hours. Or, as the artificial intelligence system becomes accustomed to a typical day in a neighbourhood, it will automatically report behaviour that is out of the ordinary for that specific area.

Ricky Crook, the CEO of Vumacam, at their offices in Randburg. Picture: Sebabatso Mosamo/Sunday Times
Ricky Crook, the CEO of Vumacam, at their offices in Randburg. Picture: Sebabatso Mosamo/Sunday Times

The system will provide a level of coverage not seen before in Joburg. Though many companies have installed CCTV cameras, such systems have never been integrated. Previously, a car stolen in Dunkeld would not be flagged if it appeared in Randburg; now, linked cameras can follow the vehicle into areas manned by different security companies.

If the system seems extensive, it’s not unusual. Joburg is simply joining other global economic hubs in using surveillance to curb crime. In the UK, there are about 2-million surveillance cameras — one for every 32 citizens. And in the US, camera surveillance skyrocketed after the 9/11 attacks.

But the notion of Big Brother monitoring every move sits uncomfortably with many. As a result, the European Forum for Urban Security has issued guidelines, warning that surveillance cameras should be used only for their "intended purpose" — for policing, in other words. And citizens should know exactly which areas are monitored, and those in charge must be identifiable and accountable to the public.

Parry says this is why all clients — the security companies — are carefully vetted. They may also not download footage, having access only to a live feed. So, for example, a security company employee cannot download camera footage to blackmail a cheating spouse.

But such safeguards may do little to allay fears around the state’s use of such systems to monitor citizens.

University of Johannesburg professor Jane Duncan, a long-time advocate for greater transparency around how state agencies collect information, believes the camera system could bring a new set of problems.

"My main concern with the Vumacam project is that it is being rolled out in the absence of a fully functioning information regulator, so people don’t really have redress if they have concerns," she says.

"Furthermore, the controls and policies at City of Joburg level are inadequate, which means there is no real public mandate. This means a powerful surveillance capability is being rolled out with inadequate external controls. The technology is running far ahead of the policy."

There’s another fundamental problem: the security of sensitive data.

"SA has a very recent history of data abuses [and] breaches," says Duncan. "If data about people’s movements in and out of their houses and their travel habits is breached, this could create huge problems for residents."

Even the argument that what happens in a public space is public rings hollow. It’s yesterday’s argument, says Duncan. "It applies less and less as CCTV is becoming increasingly ‘smart’, which means these capabilities are much more invasive … Smart CCTV cameras have unprecedented capabilities to pry into your life, identify who you are and track your movements – and be used to profile you."

But Vumacam’s Parry refers to the benefits of the technology. She says it’s a fact that cameras deter criminals, pointing to the Dunkeld suburb by way of example: crime there was down 85% following the installation of cameras.

The company says the public is also on-side, being more concerned about security than who is watching. It refers to various social media polls as proof. Investigative journalism programme Carte Blanche asked last month if people were concerned about their privacy: of 7,300 respondents, 86% said they weren’t.

In a similar poll by Future City Fourways, a neighbourhood improvement initiative, 97% gave Vumacam the thumbs-up.

Which is all well and good. But what has yet to be adequately addressed is the question attributed to Juvenal, a poet in ancient Rome: "Who will guard the guards themselves?"