27 OCTOBER 2006
Though not the only surveillance gadgets now in use, and hardly the most sophisticated at that, CCTVs are certainly among those widely used to monitor a public that is largely unaware it is being watched.
So one day Hinlo, a security consultant, bought a close-circuit TV system and had security cameras monitoring their perimeter fence and the streets leading to the otherwise tranquil compound where he had his house. He also got a PA system so that when the drug dealers came too close, he could tell them to go somewhere else without setting a foot outside his house. It's not clear if they ever knew cameras were following their every move, but they would leave as soon as Hinlo asked them to. Other drug dealers also got the message to stay away from the area (at least that's what the police station around the block told Hinlo).
Hinlo has since moved to a safer place, but he still has a CCTV system to help guard his home. These days practically anyone could be a target for criminals, and apparently, he doesn't want to be caught off-guard. With his CCTV, he probably feels like he is on constant lookout within the safety of his own house, and even if he isn't there.
The minute Hinlo steps outside, however, he knows it's his turn to be watched. Once confined to banks and selected government offices, CCTVs are now in many of the malls (especially those in Makati), bus stations, LRT and MRT, hotel lobbies and elevators, and airports. There are even cameras on a few major thoroughfares, aimed at catching traffic violators. The Philippines' seaports are soon to have CCTVs as well, in compliance with international rules and regulations. But although all these may sometimes seem too much, this country is still a long way off from the likes of London, which has been practicing what security experts call "blanket monitoring" for more than a decade now.
Up until the bombings in London last year, when it took only days for the authorities to come up with video grabs of three of the four suspects on their way to the spots where they would carry out their dirty deeds, only a few outside that city probably knew that dwellers and visitors there were being kept under tight watch through hundreds of thousands of close-circuit TVs. In fact, the average Briton was having his movements recorded at least 300 times a day as some 2.5 million CCTVs scattered all over the country kept silent vigil. London, which has the highest concentration of CCTVs in the world, had about half a million. This seems quite apt for the homeland of George Orwell, but then the famed author of 1984 probably would not have appreciated the near-realization of his dark look at the future. He did, after all, make it perfectly clear that he considered being watched at all times nothing less than a nightmare.
Today, however, that nightmare has become a necessity — a crucial weapon even, or so authorities battling a myriad of security threats are saying across the globe. Indeed, shortly after London demonstrated just how swiftly CCTVs enabled them to pinpoint who the bombers were, other cities outside of Britain began thinking that perhaps they should start stocking up on similar equipment. This is even though many of them already had significant numbers of such devices watching over streets, airports, seaports, office buildings, and private homes. With rising crime rates and the intensifying threat of terrorism, peace of mind has come in the form of a small blinking camera and a video monitor.
CCTVs of course are not the only surveillance gadgets now in use (as demonstrated in last year's Garci wiretapping scandal). They are also hardly the most sophisticated among such gear. But they are certainly among those widely used to monitor a public that is largely unaware it is being watched. This is because the cameras have become so small and are usually placed in unobtrusive spots. Some manufacturers have even been able to produce cameras the size of buttons — truly a far cry from the days when these were as big as shoeboxes. And with China now also making them, the prices have gone down, thereby enabling more people — and yes, cities — to buy them, sometimes in bulk. That only means there are more CCTVs out there, watching and recording away. But only a few seem to think that's a bad thing.
THE COMMON argument is, if you're not a criminal, then you're not being spied on, you're being looked after. That in turn is based on the assumption that security cameras prevent crimes from taking place. This is also why some business establishments announce that they have CCTVs in their premises, the thinking being that someone with less than noble intentions would be deterred from going with his plan by the possibility that he would get caught. Yet far too many people go on and do the crime anyway, and clumsily at that, so much so that it has spawned an occasional U.S. TV special featuring stupid criminals caught on tape.
Just a few months before the July 7, 2005 bombings in London, the British Home Office released a study it had commissioned that showed how CCTVs had failed expectations. Done on 14 systems that included town and city centers, hospitals, and residential areas, the study saw no reduction in the crime rates that could be attributed to the cameras. That is, except for those in car parks, where cases of theft were noted to have lessened.
University of Leicester criminology professor Martin Gill, who headed the research, said the study's findings were obviously "disappointing." Several media reports also quoted him as saying: "The truth is that CCTV is a powerful tool that society is only just beginning to understand. It looks simple to use, but it is not. It has many components, and they can impact in different ways."
"It is more than just a technical solution," he added. "It requires human intervention to work to maximum efficiency and the problems it helps deal with are complex."
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