Are City Surveillance Networks Combating South Africa’s Crime Levels?

Various municipalities in the country have spent millions of rands investing in costly closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems as part of crime prevention strategies. With all the money spent on these surveillance strategies, it is essential to ask whether these tools have effectively combatted crime levels.

CCTV systems have been adopted throughout the country as this is one of the “best tools” that can combat the country’s high crime levels. The main reason for this is based on the idea that mass surveillance is the future of AI profiling and is the key to fighting crime. A study conducted on biometric surveillance in South Africa and Kenya found that international organisations and the private sectors were the key drivers of biometric surveillance. The point of investing in biometric surveillance was to protect property from violence and crime.

Based on the results, it can be said that this has also led to the view that CCTV systems play a role in crime reduction while assisting with investigations and arrests. Though the CCTV systems are expensive, they seem to provide absolute value.


Issues with the spread of surveillance networks

The results of the study may indicate that biometric surveillance provides absolute value. There has been very little evidence to show the systems’ value in South Africa. This is due to privacy concerns and how the surveillance systems might conflict with the country’s new POPIA.

Several issues are highlighted about the spread of CCTV in South Africa, the first being that there have not been many studies conducted in South Africa to show the effectiveness of CCTV surveillance. Though there has been widespread use of surveillance systems and crime levels have deteriorated in areas with surveillance systems, the available data only indicates that only 4% of suspects caught on camera were later arrested.

Another issue with the spread of surveillance systems in the country is that it is challenging to gauge the effectiveness of CCTV as surveillance systems are not strongly aligned with police precincts, making it difficult to align them with the data that SAPS has.

There are also high costs involved with implementing the systems as the budgets set to implement the systems often balloon past the initial projections. For one of the CCTV projects, the amount budgeted was R10 million. However, in the end, the amount spent on the whole project was R50 million due to issues with vandalism.

There is a rise in the use of CCTV systems in private gated communities, as many now have surveillance systems. However, most communities cannot afford to install these systems. In the case of the communities that end up installing the surveillance systems, they cannot afford to maintain and ensure that they are working and up to date.

Implementing CCTV systems poses some privacy concerns; however, advocates of the systems have argued that privacy concerns should be secondary to security and safety. However, some serious questions are being raised about the abuse of power, profiling and what will happen to all the data collected by the systems. Some argue that the surveillance systems will become so pervasive that people will know they are being watched. Still, some researchers question how the systems will effectively deter criminal activity if criminals are not aware that they are being watched.

Even with all these security concerns, there are plans for expanding CCTV networks in municipal projects for the next five years. The South African Cities Network (SACN) mentions that the cost of maintaining surveillance systems is crippling safety budgets which will take away money and financing from other security interventions and law enforcement projects. South Africans are then trapped in a cycle of crime and violence. Fear of crime and profit-driven messaging suggests that private security technologies such as surveillance systems are crucial to their safety and security. However, inadequate evidence supports the idea that despite the widespread use of surveillance systems, crime continues to climb steeply.

The SACN recommends that cities take the time to investigate and analyse the data on how the footage generated by the CCTV systems is used in investigations and arrests and conduct cost-feasibility studies to explore the affordability of the systems. Cities should further investigate the different kinds of interventions on equal footing so that their already tight budgets are not blown on one system without testing their efficacy.

Researchers also recommend municipalities refrain from investing in CCTV systems if they do not have the proper support, response personnel and resources required to maintain them. It is also vital that CCTV systems are subject to regular objective review and that the results are published and understood.




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