Power comes from the lens of the surveillance camera.

by Lili on Monday, 13 July 2009 Comments
Photo Source: nolifebeforecoffee(flickr)
Published in Renlai July-August 2009 (Translated by Nicholas Coulson)

Taipei recently announced that they would be investing 1.6bn NTD to build Taiwan’s ’electronic wall’ of security cameras yet. Furthermore the Police plan to extend this to an unbroken network of security cameras covering the whole of Taiwan within five years. Although this could make it difficult for criminals to disappear, there remains suspicion that the acquiring and circulating of this material could infringe upon human rights. Will the great electronic wall be an efficient weapon against crime or the secret eye allowing big brother to further encroach on personal freedoms?


Surveillance web uncontrollable by the law. The spider of control never stops spinning his web.

After 9/11 the UK and US implemented a zero tolerance system of police control in the name of counter-terrorism. The extensive installation of security cameras became a key policy. Taiwan is also vigorously increasing its security cameras, in the name of protecting society and preventing natural disasters. Taipei Municipal government is putting 1.6 billion NT$ into the installation of 13600 new cameras while the Ministry of the Interior plans to use over 2 billion NT$ to make the cameras an unbroken national network, an ’electric wall’ within 5 years.

Can the monitors really improve public order? In London, for example, with the world’s densest CCTV coverage, half a million cameras couldn’t prevent the death of fifty people in the London bombings. Different studies have shown that crime rates have fallen, remained the same and even increased following the installation of surveillance, i.e. there is as yet no proof that security cameras benefit public order. Essentially, the monitors can only reenact the crime scene bit by bit while the benefits to prevention and intervention are, so far, very limited.

Although there are more and more monitors in place, the legislation on usage of the video data has been unable to keep up with the advances, to the extent that most surveillance systems are in fact unusable, unmanageable and uncontrollable by the law. For example if the monitors could detect car license plates, they could trace the whereabouts of stolen cars. However, currently we often see the media go with the police to the scenes of debauchery and dens of pornography. If the cameras had this ability of car detection, could we guarantee the government would not use this technology to reveal the whereabouts of political opponents and dissidents to the media? And will the people have a clear system of supervision and channels of complaint?

Furthermore, has this costly policy with far reaching effects gone through sufficient appraisal? If we use Taipei’s estimate of 1.6billion NT$ (not including the annual cost of upkeep and maintenance) and asume one police has a monthly income of 50,000 NT$, then the projects 1.6billion NT$ could keep 2600 police officers on duty for a whole year. So which strategy is more beneficial to public order? Police patrols or security cameras? ’Bobbies on the beat’ or CCTV?

Who decides what is wrong? ’Sin’ is in the lens of the beholder.

What makes cities great is that a plethora of different people and minds can interact and exchange opinions directly in public spaces. More CCTV could reduce the opportunities to interact with strangers and even add a layer of mistrust between people.

But, despite this suspicion of infringement of human rights, everyone (besides specifically concerned human rights groups) seems totally unconcerned about the universalisation of security cameras, even thinking "If you’ve not done anything wrong, why should you be scared of others watching you." The problem here lies in who decides what is ’wrong’? For teachers, reading comics and online computer gaming is wrong. To parents, students having boyfriends or girlfriends is wrong. In the eyes of the government, protesting government policy is wrong. If you’re a single man, a woman dazing in the park alone could be wrong. To heterosexuals lovers, two men holding hands in the street might be wrong. Essentially security cameras will always be a tool of social control for the holders of power and innocents will always find themselves caught in the web.

Whether or not the installation of cameras really has a positive correlation with public order merits further discussion. However questions such as the potential violation of privacy and the further control over individual actions by the centres of power with their extra eyes, cannot be left without clarification and rigorous discussion.

Read more about the new surveillance plans

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