NO HIDING PLACE | Do surveillance cameras ensure security or invade privacy?

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‘Survival of the fittest’. We all grew up hearing the phrase, the current generations more than ever. With opportunities wide open in front of all of us, it has now come down to individuals to make their own fate. The notion, however, has a darker side to it. People are so driven by materialistic motives that some get out of their way to live a life in the netherworld. To safeguard against the monstrous threat of crimes, human civilization thus prioritized the need for surveillance systems from the dawn of their appearance.

With the advent of technology, Closed Circuit Television, more popularly known as CCTV, has become a great tool for making deterrent effects on probable offenders. Following the terrorist incident of 11 September 2001, the use of such devices has become so common that a report estimates that globally there are more than 1 billion surveillance cameras in use.

Bangladesh too has been catching up with the global pace. Although an ambitious project called ‘Development of Dhaka City Digital Monitoring System’ was underway as early as 2015 to ensure better safety and security, the main push came after the Holey Artisan Bakery incident in 2016. According to a statement by Sagor Kumar Tito, a video surveillance product marketer, over 16 lakh units of CCTV cameras were sold in Bangladesh in 2020 alone. Plunge in price has further prompted more people to adapt to the new security standards. Out in the open, Dhaka currently has 16,000 operational surveillance cameras which are financed by institutions, including the government. These are often the advanced ones, providing investigators a solid base to understand the consecutive steps of the perpetrator and the basic nature of crimes.

Under the Development of Dhaka City Digital Monitoring System mentioned before, cameras equipped with facial recognition capability will be able to identify criminals and send pictures to the central command and nearby police stations. Such apprehension of offenders could deter incidents like 2015 Pahela Baishakh sexual harassment on Dhaka University campus, ATM frauds and multiple other offenses, alongside aiding to know whether the offenders were previously involved in other crimes. The cherry on top is that CCTV surveillance is more cost-effective than round the clock security officers.

Dhaka, being the epicenter of most economic activities in Bangladesh, attracts people from all classes. This type of first-city bias has made Dhaka extremely fragile to criminal activities, making it 108th most criminally held back city in the world crime index. Planning ministry has already taken the matter into account and proposed a Tk 5,000-crore project to the home ministry. Under the new project, police will install 50,000 surveillance cameras and motion sensors across the capital. In addition to that, DMP is also installing 600 more CCTV cameras at 218 points in the city within three months. Additional Inspector General (Development) Gazi Mozammel Haque of Police Headquarters believes the new cameras will make investigation much more efficient.

In contrast to it, Chattogram, the second biggest city in Bangladesh, has no more than 32 units of CCTV cameras per square kilometer. According to SM Masudul Islam, Deputy Director (Security) of Chattogram Port, 313 CCTV cameras are operational in port area at present. To set-up the security system, 208 more CCTV cameras are being installed there.

It should be noted that CCTV has a different impact on different crimes. Some crimes are more severe and require proper understanding of several critical points. Terrorist motive, for example, is deep rooted and takes years to form. Some offenders are even willing to show their face in the name of sacrifice. Such arguments should not mean CCTV cameras are any less effective. It only means such offenses require further inquiry and collaborative effort.

There is, however, a flipped side of the story. Privacy invasion is a capital concern these days and CCTV cameras have had the hot seat in this regard. Many questions hover around the table as soon as the debate commences. Who is at the other end of the camera? Who is ultimately watching the footage? What happens when a privately owned surveillance camera is maliciously pointed into the windows of another private residence? Camera hinders the right of citizens to roam freely around the city as they now need to be more aware of their movements. In 2014, a misuse of public data stormed the internet when a few footages from Delhi Metro Surveillance were leaked on YouTube and on other questionable sites.

The rebuttal is quite simple. Surveillance cameras are meant to protect public interest by deterring criminal activity and by storing material evidence to prevent such repetition. Every good thing in this world can turn destructive if given in the wrong hands. The responsibility does not fall on the device, but on the human brain that champions it.

Bangladesh still lacks a well-organized set-up to extract the full utility of the system. A well-documented approach to strategically adapt to the new dynamics may help in furthering the success of the system. Local assembling of products can help in further reducing the prices to bring all prime locations and hot spots under security surveillance.

A comprehensive networking through police headquarters and police stations may also help in protecting public data to ensure both safety and privacy parallelly. Last but not the least, it is on us, citizens, to give our permission to being surveilled when in public for greater good. In a deeply globalized and polarized world, privacy is a luxury that only the socially recluse can afford.

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