Saturday, August 16, 2008

Spy vs Spy

The Singapore Police has used CCTV (close-circuit TV) in public places for various purposes. The most 'profitable' of these must be those CCTV cameras that take pictures of a speeding cars. Many drivers have been 'caught' in the process and have had to pay up fines according to the traffic rules broken. And yes, CCTV cameras have also already been put up above street level at busy places such as Boat Quay, Orchard Road, Little India, Raffles City, Suntec City and Geylang (reported in Today - 12 August 2008) - places frequented by tourists, and other pleasure seekers.

Now, the Police is going one step further. It is evaluating cameras that have the ability to recognise faces. The use is obvious. If it can instantly recognise a face - the face of a person wanted by the law, then that information can be conveyed in real-time to a monitoring centre where the police can be informed to take the necessary action - immediately. What can be more efficient than that? We don't need so many police patrolling the streets anymore - these cameras will do the job. And in spite of the reduced number of police on the streets, the island will become even more secure. Singapore's famed low crime rate will be set to become even lower, except...

What/who are the police looking for? If it is for criminals and offenders, then even if these cameras can recognise faces, it isn't going to be very useful, eventually. Criminals and those on the Wanted list will probably learn to alter their physical features - grow a moustache or beard (or attach one for the female), put on spectacles, dye the hair - so much so that even the human eye can no longer recognise the person much less a camera. And experts and users of such cameras have admitted, it isn't very accurate now, though they hope that the accuracy can be improved with time.

This doesn't give me any comfort. First, we shouldn't be spending tax-payers money on technology that works approximately 50% of the time, or even 90% of the time. The mis-identified person can be put through such 'inconvenience' that the police can become the subject of lawsuites - unless the law protects them. Which gives rise to the issue of abuse and privacy concerns. I may not have broken the law, but I don't necessarily want anyone to know that I was at Boat Quay on a particular night at a particular hour. Simply put, it nobody's business, and shouldn't be, unless I have committed a crime. That's my private life, my personal preference. Similarly, I wouldn't like to think that somebody is monitoring my movements anyway and trying to determine who I am. Who is this person who has been given such powers? Would anyone feel comfortable being watched?

Yes, there are security cameras all over the island now - at MRT stations, at shopping malls, at bank lobbies, even at swimming pools (acting as pseudo life-guards). When you don't have that many people who can, or want to, walk around these places to keep an eye on everything, we use technology. That's fair enough. Sometimes, these cameras are pretty useful - like capturing the image of a person or persons who may have committed a crime, or looking for lost kids in the mall. But when facial recognition cameras are aimed at people in public places, well, I think a line needs to be drawn - between a need for security and a need for privacy. Otherwise, we may as well have Big Brother take over the running of our lives.

Image source: morgueFile.com. Author: Rachel Montiel

1 comment :

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