By Adam Mowlam, Manager Smart Cities, City of Greater Geelong
Smart cities leverage technology and data to enhance livability, sustainability, and economic prosperity. However, some parts of the community are expressing growing concerns that the implementation of smart city initiatives could lead to an invasion of privacy, restriction of freedom and increased surveillance. Here, we explore the concerns surrounding visual surveillance technologies, including Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) and the delicate balance between privacy, safety, and freedom.
Community attitudes towards surveillance and smart city innovations are varied, with some fearful and angry at the alleged resulting lack of privacy. For example, a recent TikTok video from Melbourne, where a middle-aged man climbed a street pole to willfully destroy a CCTV camera with a hammer, was widely shared and supported due to the perception of CCTV as an unnecessary invasion of privacy and government surveillance.
Critics of smart cities often highlight the spurious, acrostic definition of “smart” in smart city as surveillance, monitoring, analysing and reporting technology, which perpetuates the notion that smart city initiatives primarily revolve around intrusive surveillance.
Of course, smart city initiatives vary greatly from those focused on bridging the digital divide, addressing transport challenges and data-driven decision making across the built and natural environment.
Privacy is an inherent and fundamental right that deserves safeguarding, and it is entirely valid for citizens to have concerns regarding any potential encroachment resulting from the use of CCTV. As technology advances and becomes more powerful, the risk of unnecessary surveillance becomes a legitimate concern.
There is both a strong need to inform citizens on how CCTV is being used, and more importantly, for robust policies and regulations to ensure strict control over the use of CCTV footage and prevent misuse, such as unauthorised access, unwarranted intrusion, or excessive surveillance.
Understanding the importance of safety
On the other side of the debate lies the undeniable value and role of CCTV in enhancing safety and security. Many community engagement pieces have shown that a majority of people, particularly women and at-risk groups, perceive CCTV as a significant means to augment their safety.
In a recent Geelong-based survey conducted on the proposed installation of CCTV, an overwhelming 79 per cent of respondents expressed support for CCTV, with some questioning the efficacy and value for money in addition to privacy-related concerns.
For many individuals, the presence of CCTV provides a sense of security, enabling them to feel more comfortable in certain public spaces and empowering them to participate in activities they may have previously avoided (e.g. staying out late at night, travelling alone).
In other words, the removal of CCTV would hinder the freedom and mobility of many individuals, thus inhibiting their full participation in society.
The need for responsible implementation
City safety is a complex issue that necessitates a multifaceted approach, and CCTV plays an important role within this broader strategy. It is well established that CCTV not only acts as a deterrent, but is a critical tool in crime clearance rates, both directly but also in repeat offences (e.g. graffiti, property theft).
Banning CCTV altogether would deprive communities of a valuable tool for crime prevention, investigation, and evidence collection. To strike a balance between privacy concerns, the freedoms of all citizens and public safety and law enforcement benefits, it is imperative to establish, implement and audit stringent guidelines for CCTV implementation.
Implementing CCTV infrastructure and managing its data responsibly encompasses a wide range of considerations. This entails establishing transparent guidelines for data storage, implementing access restrictions, high functioning steering committees and conducting regular audits to ensure compliance with privacy and security standards.
In order to foster trust and accountability, transparency should be prioritised in the use of CCTV. This means ensuring that individuals have access to information regarding where and how CCTV data is collected, stored, and used.
Moreover, incorporating mechanisms for public input, such as conducting public consultations or establishing oversight committees, enables the community’s voice to be heard and helps address any concerns or feedback related to CCTV implementation and operation.
Embracing a nuanced perspective
To have a meaningful dialogue about the merits and drawbacks of CCTV, it is essential to avoid black-andwhite thinking. Painting all CCTV systems as invasions of privacy ignores the nuances and potential benefits they provide to communities, and while the concerns surrounding privacy and freedom are valid, recognising the importance of safety creates a foundation for productive discussions and viable solutions.
Balancing privacy, safety, and freedom in the context of CCTV is a complex task. Striking the right balance requires responsible implementation, strict regulation, and open dialogue with the community.
By acknowledging the potential benefits of CCTV while safeguarding against misuse and abuse, we can create an environment where privacy and safety coexist harmoniously, with the rights of individuals to navigate public spaces with confidence and peace of mind.