Commissioner of Police Ng Joo Hee’s interview in the Sunday Times put some hard numbers on the developing trend of using cameras to aid in police work. That number is an average of more than eight cameras per HDB block, which comes to almost 100,000 little digital eyes watching over our neighbourhoods by 2016. This is just for Singapore’s 10,000-odd HDB blocks.

Those of us following the issues closely will recall comments earlier this month in the news where Ng said that police “are prepared to share the footage with other agencies such as the Land Transport Authority and National Environment Agency.”

Surveillance cameras are nothing new to us Singaporeans, if we are attentive, we will notice than we have already been watched for a long time – MRT stations, malls, and major roads are already covered by a comprehensive, live network of cameras. On a typical day, I count at least 25 government cameras that have picked up my movements. Still, this is the closest that Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon has come to our homes, and privacy advocates are going to get antsy.

It falls short of the endless surveillance of George Orwell’s Oceana – an authoritarian police state whose government uses every possible means to control its population. It is in this Orwellian dystopia that the phrase “Big Brother is watching you” is first used.

When confidence in the G is high, people generally don’t worry about an invasion of privacy – the annual Edelman Trust Barometer ranked Singapore second out of 26 countries surveyed for trust in the G. The machinations of surveillance in Oceana and Singapore may be very similar today, but our governments are very different, save to a small segment of die-hard conspiracy theorists.

I’ve really got nothing to fear from the G. They can watch me all they want – I’m a citizen in good standing. Maybe they’ll uncover my secret penchant for picking my nose in private, but I don’t think they’ll really care. When it comes to police work and fighting crime, you can say I trust the government.

Trust means that I’m not too concerned with the G being able to find me on some camera the moment I step out of my house or poke my head out my window, but is that trust misplaced? What if circumstances change? I really know nothing of the internal processes and checks that exist to govern how the information captured on surveillance cameras is accessed, disseminated and used.

As usual, the G is quite opaque on how things are run on the inside. Which elements in the G can view surveillance footage? Who signs off on it? How does footage get passed from one agency to another? How long is it kept? Is it governed by some sort of privacy law?

You see, most Singaporeans have no clue about our privacy rights. Many do not even know the implications of the Personal Data Protection Act that came into effect at the start of 2013. Will we even know when the line is crossed and the government starts putting cameras that peer into our homes?

A system shrouded in secrecy is a system that breeds fears of abuse by rogue elements. What happens if some stalker NSF in the SPF is keeping tabs on my daughter’s movements? What if someone I’ve offended in some government agency can get his hands on surveillance tapes of my front door? What happens if there is a change in government? Can surveillance footage be abused for political power? Will footage of my daily journeys be sold to some data-mining corporation for a quick buck?

“With great power comes great responsibility”, some hero’s uncle used to say. With the power to enhance our safety and uphold the law through surveillance comes the responsibility to ensure that such power is not abused. We need to be assured that data thieves and snoopers cannot be given an opportunity to exploit a system meant to prevent physical crime.

For this to happen the limits and laws governing surveillance need to be very clear. I think the G needs to be more pro-active and communicate the processes and checks that are in place to preserve the privacy of residents.

This article was first written for Breakfast Network.


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