Controlling Cape Town: The real costs of CCTV cameras, and what you need to know

Visual surveillance of urban areas is booming worldwide. In South Africa, where the police fight a deadly war against crime daily, surveillance tech is increasingly used by local municipalities to augment an understaffed and under-resourced police force. In the lead is Cape Town, with more than 1,500 CCTV cameras, 626 of which are specifically dedicated to crime detection and prevention. The City has also acquired drones for this purpose.

One driving force behind this is the assumption that cameras will make things safer. But there are clear indicators that, in the long run, the hidden costs of 24/7 visual surveillance can easily outweigh its ability to make our lives better.

Cape Town is a dangerous place. The 2017/2018 police statistics show this. Cape Town Central Police Station had, at 15,422 incidents, the highest number of serious community reported crimes in the country. There are 17 such crimes, including, but not limited to, murder, attempted murder, robbery with aggravating circumstances, rape, and assault with the intent to inflict grievous bodily harm. Cape Town has been at the top of the list since April 2014, with numbers consistently higher than the notorious and second-highest-ranking Joburg Central.

Also within the municipality lies the Cape Flats, an area tormented by crime. The Mitchell’s Plain Police Station, located there, had 17,664 serious crimes in 2013/2014, ahead of Cape Town and Joburg Central. Today, it stands at number three, with 11,382 in the last financial year.

Apart from the comparatively high number of reported crimes, Cape Town has the second largest municipality in the country, with Statistics South Africa estimating its population at 3.8 million people, according to census 2011 results. The growth rate was estimated to be 2.7% between 2001 and 2011. It covers an area of 2,461 square kilometres, making it the largest South African municipality in terms of land area.

Despite these statistics, a recent investigation by the Public Service Commission showed that 85% of the metropole’s police stations are understaffed.

It’s against this backdrop that the City’s closed circuit television camera network has expanded over the past 20 years. Back in 1998, the City started out with the installation of 12 CCTV cameras in the CBD. The first CCTV control room had 18 operators, and data was recorded in analog format on video tapes. According to a City presentation, initial “buy-in” was “apprehensive”.

But when SA won its 2010 Soccer World Cup bid, the stage was set for the significant augmentation of the system. Between November 2009 and December 2010, 32 digital cameras were installed in the CBD, including Gardens, Table Bay Boulevard, and Green Point.

At the time, all feeds led to the Communicare Control Room of the Metro Police Department in the CBD. A digital video recording system was installed, and the new cameras were remotely controllable by individual operators. Operators could now use a control panel to pan, tilt and zoom so that suspects could be tracked as the camera feed streamed to their consoles in real time. They’re accordingly known as PTZ cameras.

A second CCTV control room — the City’s Transport Management Centre — was established in Goodwood in 2010, although, as the name implies, the focus here is not solely on crime, even though the control rooms can share video streams. They can each operate independently should one centre be shut down.

By 2017, the City’s safety and security directorate employed 120 CCTV camera operators.

The City says it now has 1,578 cameras in its network comprising four sub-networks.

Most cameras are used to monitor public transport spaces. One of these is the Freeway Management System, with 239 cameras. It monitors traffic flow on highways and is used to inform road users about accidents, emergencies, maintenance issues or adverse weather conditions along the route. There are 713 cameras in the Integrated Rapid Transit System — the City’s public transport network which includes the MyCiTi bus routes.

Dedicated to the surveillance of crime are the 626 cameras of the Metro Police Strategic Surveillance Unit (Metro SSU). An additional 513 private camera installations have been registered with the City, as required by City by-laws. However, the safety and security directorate says that this is not a part of its network.

Of the cameras dedicated to the Metro SSU, at least 514 are equipped with pan, tilt and zoom capabilities and licence plate recognition technology, or LPR. The licence plate recognition system “recognises” and films a car’s number plate. Every time you drive past a camera with activated LPR capabilities, your car and number plate is photographed. That data is stored, and can be analysed later to retrospectively map your driving patterns.

If a vehicle is suspected of being used in a crime, this means the number plate can be entered into the system which will yield photographs and accompanying location details of the vehicle for a set time span, be it a week or a month.

The system is also connected to eNatis (the National Traffic Information System), which means that the vehicle owner’s details, which are linked to the number plate, can be retrieved. Conversely, you can also programme the system to alert you when a suspicious number plate is caught on any of the cameras. LPR cameras are also used at roadblocks to pull over motorists with outstanding fines. They’re also used to implement speed-over-distance traffic fines, and to catch motorists who drive in the designated bus lane during restricted hours.

The City’s surveillance network never sleeps: it runs 24/7, recording and storing footage for a 30-day period, for which it has 1.4 petabytes (14,000 terabytes) of storage space. That’s up from about 300 terabytes in 2010. For a list of specific areas covered by CCTV cameras, go here.

Apart from CCTV installations, the City has also started to invest in drones to combat crime. In May 2015, the City tested Dronetec’s W.A.S.P. Mk4 remotely piloted aircraft during a police operation. (See here and here)

In the 2017/2018 financial year, the ward committee for ward 23 spent R150,000 on drone components. The ward purchased the Aerowing 1900 Twin Drone. This drone was launched this year. It is operational and is used for security purposes, such as anti-poaching efforts and addressing gang violence. (Wards have a budget that is separate from that of the City’s, and that is managed by ward councillors.)

Ward 32 spent R 250,000 of ward-allocated funding on drones for security purposes in the last financial year, but as far as Daily Maverick could establish, the drone or drones are not yet operational. The City’s safety and security directorate has also purchased at least one drone from its budget. The City did not answer questions related to the drone or drones it purchased.

The City has not confirmed it, but an industry source which sells drones for security purposes said it had purchased the DJI Matrice 210 drone. These are able to carry two cameras at once, including a camera with thermal capabilities. It retails for between R85,000 and R95,000, with additional costs for cameras and accessories. One of the many types of camera compatible with the drone, the Zenmuse X4S, retails for about R12,000. This excludes the gimble, the device used to fit the camera to the drone. If you want to know more about this type of drone, go here.

In the face of the perpetual crime waves hitting the city, installing surveillance cameras and launching drones appears to be an obvious part of the solution. But this is a potentially dangerous assumption, for one’s personal safety, both now and in the future.

The first issue relates to the effectiveness of the system to prevent and reduce crime. Does it actually work, or is it creating a false sense of security? Is it worth the financial expense, or is a bobby on the beat a better bet? This is a question that has been asked time and again, and research around the world has had mixed findings. If you want to explore this further, go herehere and here.

But each city is different.

We asked Cape Town’s safety and security directorate how much money, to date, it had spent on the installation, maintenance, and operations costs, but it did not answer this question. It did, however, say that maintenance, repair and contracted services for the upkeep of the cameras for the last financial year amounted to R6-million.

For a better idea of what it costs to install and run the system, Daily Maverick spoke to a CCTV technician with more than 15 years’ experience in working with large-scale CCTV system operations. He chose to remain anonymous because he is still active in his field. He explained that to install one CCTV camera costs about R350,000, on average. (This is confirmed by a statement issued by the City earlier in 2018.)

This amount, explains the source, includes the camera itself, the pole, the fibre optic cables connecting the camera to the control room, the costs of laying these cables and installing the pole, and the administrative and logistical costs of co-ordinating the installation process with City authorities and contractors (since laying cables requires digging up roads or pavements and restoring them to their previous state).

With 626 cameras dedicated to the City’s safety and security directorate, the total installation cost for this section of the network can be roughly calculated at R219-million. In 2010, the City spent R160-million rand to set up the control room in Goodwood. In the 2017/2018 financial year, the City spent R16-million on new installations. There are at least 120 CCTV camera operators, and, says our source, they are usually qualified security guards that work for about R5,000 a month. This puts the cost of staff at about R7.2-million a year.

Then there’s the issue of storage space, which the source says is a major contributor to costs, and a good reason why cities should keep data for as short a period as possible. Physically, the storage system consists of racks (shelves, if you will) stacked on top of each other. On each rack, there’s a bus, which is what you use to connect hard drives to the system. You can fit several hard drives onto one bus. But, once the bus is full of hard drives, you need another rack on top of that, with another bus, and so forth. This is where the costs comes in. One bus could cost up to R140 000. Then, if you are adding the new bus, you must link it to another bus that’s already connected to the system. This has to a fibre link, and that’s expensive – as much as R30 000.

If the operator is doing their job, says the source, they should know within seven days if something happened and if footage is worth keeping.  But the city, which keeps data for 30 days, disagrees: “Thirty days is the generally accepted international standard. Seven days is too short and our standard assists the SAPS investigating officers by providing a longer timeframe. Given challenges that are unique to the South African policing context, the longer storage period is preferable,” said JP Smith, the City’s mayoral committee member for safety and security.

Daily Maverick asked the City to comment on the high crime rates reported by the South African Police Services, despite the presence of cameras. Smith said that most areas where there is a camera footprint have generally shown a lower level of crime, but did not provide statistics.

However, a media statement earlier in 2018 from the City’s mayoral committee member for transport and urban development, Brett Herron, suggests that CCTV is not necessarily a deterrent.

The numbers suggest that the 713 cameras that monitor the City’s Integrated Rapid Transit System is having little effect on criminal behaviour. (These cameras are not dedicated to the metro’s Strategic Surveillance Unit, but focus on protecting City assests.)

Herron said that the cost of damage to MyCiTi bus stations alone — due to vandalism and protest action from July 2014 to September 2017 — amounted to nearly R4 million. In February 2018, protesters vandalised MyCity stations in Dunoon and Usasaza with bricks, stones and burning tyres. In 2014 and 2017, two MyCiTi buses were burnt out. It cost R4.2-million to replace them. In addition the cost to repair vandalised traffic signals across Cape Town and replace stolen road infrastructure came to about R6.6-million between July 2015 and September 2017.

That said, there’s a research issue which makes it difficult to prove that preventative programmes actually work, and this is not just applicable to CCTV cameras. There is no real way to measure if an incident did not happen.

Quite obviously, there is no record of every instance someone quietly decides not to commit a crime when they see a camera. What is possible is a methodologically sound survey to determine this. This, however, has not been carried out.

Whatever the case may be, the City’s planning blueprint — the Integrated Development Plan (IDP) for 2017 to 2022 — shows that the CCTV system will grow and the installation of CCTV cameras form a part of municipal performance indicators. It is a mandate that must be met, regardless of the results it yields. The City’s SSU now has cameras in at least 41 of the city’s 115 wards.

One way the City could recoup the costs of its system is by selling the data it gathers back to CCTV camera system developers. Research and development companies in the CCTV field require network footage in order to develop their products. Daily Maverick asked the City if it had considered using this option to generate revenue. They said it has been considered, but “has not yet been tabled as we are looking at the revenue model it will require”.

And this brings us to the other problem with 24/7 visual surveillance.

Apart from not knowing whether a camera has the same worth as a bobby on the beat, there’s a darker side to CCTV.

This has to do not only with privacy, but ultimately with personal safety.

If databases containing video footage of people’s movements, particularly their driving patterns where licence plate recognition is concerned, are hacked, or even if information is leaked by an insider, it could spell immediate danger for the public.

Since LPR technology is in use, it means that at any one time the City has a detailed record of every road-users’ travels, at least at the level of using highways, travelling between suburbs, and in and out of neighbourhoods.

Back in 2014, when the LPR system was coming on line, Daily Maverick had an opportunity to unofficially see it in action. As a demonstration, a registration number was entered into the system. Photos of the motorist (who was not a criminal) taken during the previous week were pulled up on to the screen. The car and the licence plate were clearly visible in each, and the location and time were indicated.

(I was tempted to ask if they could check on a friend’s boyfriend to determine if he was, in fact, cheating on her. I thought the better of it; once you have to start relying on LPR instead of trust, the relationship is probably over anyway.)

But this type of action could become a reality – and a legal one. It is possible that during divorce proceedings a party may subpoena the cellphone records of the other party during the discovery process. There is the possibility that this could be applied to CCTV.

In addition, the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPI), designed to give effect to South Africans’ constitutional right to privacy, may have the opposite effect, according a source with detailed knowledge of the legal processes linked to CCTV footage due to his lengthy involvement with municipal authorities. He chose to remain anonymous because of his ties to several local municipalities.

According to POPI, any footage of you, or that is at all related to you, constitutes personal information. It is data that belongs to you, and is legally considered your property.

This means the City is in possession of terabytes of personal information. According to the source, once POPI is implemented, it could allow an individual to request authorities to release certain footage to them.

“It could be that your husband has an affair and they went to the Waterfront. You know there are cameras there, so now you can go to the council and say, ‘I demand that footage’. But on the video side, we’re not there yet.”

However, it’s not impossible.

“I predict that in a year, the lawyers are going to get smart, and it’s going to be debated legally. So what we are advising the councils to do is to cut short their recording space.”

But there’s another security issue at stake here.

Mark Heyink is an attorney and specialises in information law. He compiled the Law Society of South Africa’s guidelines for the interpretation of the Protection of Personal Information by South African Law Firms . He explains that there is a much more ominous issue, and it goes to the heart of POPI.

Personal information can be exploited by state authorities to control its population and to commit gross human rights abuses.

“It’s no co-incidence that the most stringent privacy laws in the world are in Germany,” he explains.

By law, for instance, no one is allowed to photograph your number plate — not the state, nor individuals.

He explains that Germany, during the decade leading up to Word War II, is recognised to have had one of the best information systems of any government in world history. When the Nazis gained control of this system, they used it not only to facilitate the mass murder of the Jewish people, but also to control people of other denominations and political groups (such as the Social Democrats) who opposed the Nazis.

“Their businesses didn’t get business. Their trucks didn’t get where they were supposed to, because they would be intercepted. They’d get home at night and there’d be bricks through their window.”

In the information age, vast amounts of personal information is being processed by public and private entities. Processes are automated and difficult to regulate. This brings about the potential for a wide range of human rights abuses, as history has taught. Therefore, says Heyink:

“Privacy is without a doubt the most important jurisprudential development in the information society.”

Regarding the City selling data back to CCTV system developers, Heyink says this is out of the question without an individual’s permission. According to POPI, personal data is your property. Just as another person is not allowed to sell your car without permission, they are not allowed to sell your data.

The City says that it strictly intends to adhere to POPI once it comes into effect.

In the mean time, Capetonians will do well to keep an eye on their data. DM

Heidi Swart is a journalist who has extensively investigated South Africa’s intelligence services.

This story was commissioned by the Media Policy and Democracy Project, an initiative of the University of Johannesburg’s department of journalism, film and TV and Unisa’s department of communication science.

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Warbaahinta Afrikada kala soo Xiriir Email-ka afrikada.com@gmail.com


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