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Risks, benefits of security cameras must be weighed

Author  :  Yang Zifei     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2016-11-01

Millions of surveillance cameras are installed in many countries everywhere in public space including roads and parks as well as residential and commercial buildings. Nowadays, surveillance cameras are monitored by automated computer programs instead of humans.

Today, security cameras are a seemingly ubiquitous feature of the modern urban landscape. Perched in the corners of residential buildings and shopping malls, or high up in the trees of parks—there is a mechanical eye that that keeps watch everywhere you go.

The widespread use of cameras has made video surveillance a fact of daily life while adding new dimensions to social governance.

Expansion of cameras

Though many have decried the practice because of the threat it poses to privacy, the use of video surveillance has been expanding at an alarming rate all over the world. Private security, surveillance equipment manufacturing and other related industries have become new sources of economic growth for many countries.

This can be attributed to the rapid development of information technology and surveillance technology in particular. Moreover, people’s expectations of video surveillance have encouraged the trend.

Many people assume that cameras can enable the public and police to have an awareness of everything that happens in every corner of society. We feel assured knowing that the photographs and videos they provide will reveal the truth. Thus, we can provide evidence to punish criminal behaviors and prevent crimes.

With the aid of cameras, more truth has been exposed, laying a solid foundation for more effectively punishing and deterring criminals. It even seems likely that in the future, we will build an ideal world in which everyone observes the code of conduct and the law. Driven by the ideals and expectations, people permit the intrusion of cameras in their daily life while ignoring the violation of privacy, which they regard as the cost they must pay for safety.

Biased recording

However, it remains doubtful whether facts recorded by monitoring cameras can represent the whole truth.

No matter how advanced or pervasive surveillance technology becomes, we cannot acquire all the facts of social life by these means. This is because cameras can only capture partial and biased elements from the endless ocean of information created by social life.

Also, it should be noted that camera monitoring is not free from the fallibility inherent in human operators. The design of cameras is based on subjective intentions, such as human preconceptions of certain people and behaviors. The processing of obtained video information inevitably depends on a subjective judgment. In fact, it would be false advertising to say that such technical products can achieve objective neutrality.

Effect on crime

In addition, the effect of camera monitoring on preventing and fighting crimes is also disputable. Some empirical studies show that it plays a positive role in preventing and fighting certain types of criminal acts, such as automobile-related crimes because automobiles are easily identified by cameras.

However, it is capable of doing very little about violent and sexual crimes. For terrorist attacks in particular, the existing cameras have added fuel to the fire instead of frightening terrorists from committing atrocities as evidenced by the terrorist attack in Madrid, capital of Spain, in 2004.

Terrorists are outlaws who have little regard for their own lives, so they are not afraid of cameras at all. They intend to create horror through a series of violent activities, and a live broadcast of their actions perfectly suits their purposes.

A story written in the Taoist classic Liezi, or Book of Master Lie, which is attributed to Lie Yukou, a famous Taoist philosopher during the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE), may shed light upon the side effects of surveillance. In the Kingdom of Jin, during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BCE), crime was rampant. The king felt very annoyed. One day, he heard that a man named Qie Yong was said to be capable of recognizing criminals just by looking at them.

The king believed him and dispatched him to identify criminals in the kingdom. At first, none of the one thousand criminals escaped. The king was happy about the results and shared the event with minister Zhao Wenzi. However, Zhao warned that scouting for criminals could not put an end to crime, foretelling that Qie Yong would soon meet his demise.

Indeed, Zhao’s prediction came true. Criminals cornered and killed Qie Yong, and crime became worse in the kingdom afterward. The king was frightened and asked Zhao why things went wrong. Zhao told that the only way to eradicate crime was to recommend and assign virtuous and capable officials. These officials would create a sound social order and set an example of self-discipline. Under their governance, the ordinary people would feel ashamed of breaching the law.

Now, more than 2,000 years have passed. There are still many people who expect to build a world without thieves through surveillance. As the king of Jin expected for Qie Yong, we hope that monitoring equipment alone will free us from crime. However, we need to learn the lesson from the story of Qie Yong and consider more permanent solutions.

Maybe nothing can hold back the irresistible trend of video surveillance. However, we should keep calm and be aware of the adverse impacts when taking advantage of surveillance technology to serve society.


Yang Zifei is from the School of Humanities and Law at the Hangzhou University of Electronic Science and Technology (Hangzhou Dianzi University).

Editor: Yu Hui

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