Mon­i­tor wizards

Cam­era sur­veil­lance can help us iden­tify crim­i­nals on the streets, mon­i­tor maids car­ing for ba­bies, and even check on what teach­ers are say­ing in classrooms. but how much are we will­ing to use tech­nol­ogy to do all this?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - INBOX - By dzo­fazmi

TECH­NOL­OGY en­ables us to see, hear and re­mem­ber be­yond our senses – shouldn’t we take full ad­van­tage of it? Be­ing on hol­i­day is great, but for those of you cur­rently away from home as part of the sea­sonal fes­tiv­i­ties, it may cross your mind that your house is cur­rently empty – and ex­tremely invit­ing to bur­glars.

Of course, you may live in a gated com­mu­nity or be lucky enough to have a friendly neigh­bour who oc­ca­sion­ally looks over your fence; but the truth is, we ex­pect the po­lice to do their part to step up pa­trols dur­ing this vul­ner­a­ble time of the year.

Yet, as I un­der­stand it, the re­sources avail­able to the po­lice are stretched and they can’t be ev­ery­where all the time. Or can they?

There has been de­bate on how CCTVs can help polic­ing and re­duce crime. Peo­ple talk about the ubiq­uity of tech­nol­ogy, but tech­nol­ogy now can make the viewer ubiq­ui­tous. You can be ev­ery­where and re­mem­ber ev­ery­thing.

Take for ex­am­ple the dash­cam cam­eras found in most mod­ern po­lice cars. This has been a tool in­valu­able to the po­lice (at least in Amer­ica) be­cause it pro­vides ev­i­dence of a per­pe­tra­tor’s ac­tions that can be pre­sented in court, as well as be­ing a use­ful rev­enue stream by sell­ing the footage to tele­vi­sion re­al­ity shows.

The Malaysian Gov­ern­ment it­self is no stranger to this, with the nu­mer­ous traf­fic light cam­eras through­out Kuala Lumpur. It has also stated that 316 po­lice lock-ups and 50 in­ter­ro­ga­tion rooms have been fit­ted with CCTV sys­tems since last July.

But ar­guably, where the CCTVs are re­ally needed are the res­i­den­tial ar­eas where the Malaysian gen­eral pub­lic feels vul­ner­a­ble. Yet, I be­lieve that even if they were in­stalled, it wouldn’t do much to de­ter crime.

A re­view of stud­ies re­lat­ing to the im­pact of CCTV on crime pro­duced by the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment in 2008 con­cluded that “there is min­i­mal ev­i­dence to sug­gest that CCTV ef­fec­tively de­ters crime, and in cases where crime does ap­pear to be deterred, this ef­fect is gen­er­ally short-lived”.

De­spite all this, I do be­lieve there are ben­e­fits to in­creased mon­i­tor­ing, it’s just that it needs to be made avail­able to the right peo­ple.

I sus­pect one rea­son why po­lice are in­ef­fi­cient at mak­ing full use of tech­nol­ogy is be­cause there is too much in­for­ma­tion to mon­i­tor and not enough peo­ple to go through the footage. Or it may be that what is se­ri­ous to an in­di­vid­ual is petty to the au­thor­i­ties.

But if the ob­server is fo­cused on and in­vested in what he is mon­i­tor­ing and does so as part of a larger ob­jec­tive, there may be bet­ter re­turns.

Take, for ex­am­ple, a baby mon­i­tor: No mat­ter how tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced it may be, it needs a hu­man on the other side to re­act when he or she hears a baby cry­ing, and mon­i­tor­ing over­all is just one very small step in car­ing for a child.

There were a few cases last year when maids were caught hit­ting and throw­ing chil­dren un­der their care, pro­vid­ing in­con­tro­vert­ible ev­i­dence of child abuse. How­ever, in at least one case, the cam­eras were only in­stalled and used when the par­ents be­came sus­pi­cious about bruises on their daugh­ter’s body.

You have a right to mon­i­tor your prop­erty to en­sure its safety, more so if it’s to en­sure the safety of those you love. But I say that you also should have a right to ac­cess record­ings of all pub­lic cam­eras that point to­wards you or your prop­erty.

This cur­rently isn’t cov­ered by the Per­sonal Data Pro­tec­tion Act, which con­cerns the right for you to know how your data is be­ing used by third par­ties in the process of con­duct­ing a trans­ac­tion. I pro­pose that this should ex­tend to in­clude sur­veil­lance data on your homes and your per­sons, es­pe­cially if there is clear ben­e­fit in do­ing so.

Think about the value of be­ing able to lever­age this in­for­ma­tion. If you were in­volved in an ac­ci­dent, it would be pos­si­ble to now ask for footage from a traf­fic cam­era to prove to an insurance com­pany that you were not at fault.

Or if you have your wal­let stolen by a clever pick­pocket and you want to share on so­cial me­dia how it hap­pened, this can be a warn­ing to your friends to be more care­ful.

To a cer­tain ex­tent, we can al­ready do many of those things with­out re­ly­ing on in­for­ma­tion sup­plied by third-par­ties. For ex­am­ple, it is pos­si­ble for your phone to dis­play at all times the lo­ca­tions of your close fam­ily and friends, up­dated in real time (if the other per­son al­lows you to do so, of course). And many peo­ple have in­vested in cam­eras that they place on their car dash­board to record what they see in front of them.

But that is purely per­sonal in­for­ma­tion and it only shows one side of the story. Be­ing able to ac­cess mul­ti­ple view­points would greatly en­hance your un­der­stand­ing of the sit­u­a­tion.

If not for your­self, then what about your fam­ily, es­pe­cially your chil­dren? Day­care cen­tres in Amer­ica and Bri­tain try to at­tract par­ents to en­rol with them by al­low­ing them to mon­i­tor their chil­dren’s well-be­ing over the In­ter­net via se­cu­rity cam­eras.

It isn’t just for safety but also to mon­i­tor progress. Is it such a stretch of the imag­i­na­tion to think that we could do some­thing sim­i­lar in pri­mary schools? How about the right of par­ents to know what their chil­dren are learn­ing in classrooms, and how they are be­ing taught?

This is not an easy is­sue to de­cide on. The right to pri­vacy of other peo­ple in the videos (apart from you and your close fam­ily) also needs to be taken into ac­count.

How­ever, con­sider this: In 2012, five peo­ple went miss­ing ev­ery day in Malaysia, with most of those aged be­tween 13 and 17. Wouldn’t it be great if all it would take is the press­ing of a few but­tons for par­ents to know where their miss­ing chil­dren were?

What about if they could hear what the child was hear­ing (or even see what they were see­ing) at the time? This is not a fan­tasy – the tech­nol­ogy to do this ex­ists, it’s just that so­ci­ety is still un­com­fort­able with the idea of us­ing it to its log­i­cal limit.

Yes, it is un­der­stand­able if many feel un­com­fort­able about the om­ni­science that tech­nol­ogy gives us. But at the end of the day, surely the ob­jec­tive is not to hide from the on­com­ing tidal wave, but to un­der­stand how best to ride it out to reach bet­ter shores.

Logic is the an­tithe­sis of emo­tion, but math­e­ma­ti­cian-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s the­ory is that peo­ple need both to make sense of life’s va­garies and con­tra­dic­tions. Speak to him at star2@thes­tar.com.my.

Vis­ual ev­i­dence: CCTV footage show­ing two al­leged rob­bers rush­ing away from the crime scene at some flats in Pe­nang last year. CCTV sur­veil­lance can help re­duce crime – but is any­body mon­i­tor­ing what the cam­eras show?

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