Monitor wizards

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?

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?

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

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Monitor wizards


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