Nowhere to Hide

By Liu Chun
Published: 2007-02-05
Not long ago a terrible accident ocurred on Beijing's Jing Shun Street-- a women crossing the street with her cart was run down by a truck. Eyewitnesses claimed that the truck had run the red light, while the driver swore that it was green. Who was at fault?    

A surveillance camera installed by Chaoyang District traffic personnel had been very busy. Its recording shows that after the red light had been lit for a full ten seconds, the truck ran over the crosswalk. With this conclusive evidence the driver had nowhere to hide.     

Chinese have already started living under the watchful eye of surveillance cameras. Beijing already has 260,000 pieces of image-gathering equipment, and by the end of 2007, 3,000 ATMs, most markets, gas stations, and small and medium-sized schools here will be part of a network monitored by police. Beijing city management and law-enforcement agencies will also extend their reach to all of the busiest streets, bridges, and tunnels.     

This is also happening in Shangai, Shenzhen, and other cities. By 2010, Shanghai plans to install 200,000 surveillance cameras, dubbed 'safegaurds for society'. With a total area of 600 square kilometers, this means more than 300 cameras per square kilometer- making them more numerous than traffic lights.   
And in Shenzhen's Longgang district, Bu Ji Street alone will have 211 cameras installed. Through one central control center and 23 control nodes, police will be able to zone in on any of the important sections of the street.    

Almost everyone admits that cameras have become the guardians of our modern cities. On July 21 of last year, when explosions shook London, the police were able to quickly release pictures of the suspects taken from closed-circuit cameras. But the 6,000 cameras in the London transportation system are just the tip of the iceberg; the U.K has more than 4 million cameras total.    

According to Professor Zhan Zhongle of the Peking University School of Administrative Law, surveillance cameras are important high-tech tools for managing urban areas. But, he adds, they can be abused and infringe on personal privacy.     

The surveillance boom is not just a 'governmental' phenomenon in China. In July of 2005, the staff of Sichuan Ruideng News LLC discovered that the ceiling of their office suddenly had eight new video-cameras installed. Through them the head of human resources could rifle through the channels and watch every move they made. Despite staff saying that the cameras made them uncomfortable, management refused to tear them down.     

According to Zhang Yucheng, the person watching the screens at Ruideng News LLC, the company had been burglarized several times and the cameras will help stop future thefts. 'Its not like were staring at computer screens 24/7. We glance at them occasionally. If something unexpected happens, then we review the footage in greater depth. But, after installing the cameras, workers have been more punctual and everyone is significantly more professional and efficient.'     

Of Beijing's 200,000 cameras, only 5.7 percent have been funded by the government. These imaging systems are oftentimes not mutually compatible, and since the majority of them have been installed by society itself, it is easy to imagine how difficult it is to quickly get information from them.     

With so much under surveillance, how likely is it for privacy to be abused? Li Kang, the director of a surveillance data management center, says 'In actuality, all equipment must be installed with approval from public security administrators. Actually, they themselves will oftentimes request footage for use in investigations.'     

Researcher Li Zhongnan of the Public Security Bureaus First Research Institute says that surveillance footage is not the only means by which information can be gathered. And more cameras are not necessarily better; location is still important. Protecting the public while preserving peoples privacy should be a large concern.     

Zhan Zhongle says that an area's cameras should not increase in density if the monitoring goals are already being met. Furthermore, only trained specialists adhering to strict protocol should be charged with handling the information they gather.     

Beijing is already one step ahead. This month saw the preparation of new laws aimed at clarifying the management of these information collection centers. It includes stipulations for government bodies, hospitals, schools, and a wide array of other organizations that will install surveillance cameras. Aside from enforcing a litany of city and national standards, both technical and non-technical, the law stresses privacy, going so far as to outline protective measures to prevent the misuse of data.    

Zhou Jidong, director of Beijing's Legislation Bureau, says that the law is the first of its kind and directly related to the increasing importance of this issue. In guaranteeing public safety, he adds, we must not forget the rights and interests of citizens-- especially their privacy. The current draft of the bill is addressing both.