We have a right to know when and why we are being watched

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 3:47am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 3:47am

The grainy CCTV surveillance camera images of two suspects in the stabbing of former newspaper editor Kevin Lau Chun-to opened eyes to a matter we are aware of but pay little attention to: that wherever we are, there could be someone watching us. There are tens of thousands of the unobtrusive devices on Hong Kong's streets, in parks and recreation grounds, offices and shops, the stated aim being to reduce crime and improve public safety. In the case of the attack, they did their job, providing police with helpful information for their investigation. But amid growing international concern for privacy protection in the wake of the US National Security Agency's indiscriminate gathering of information on law-abiding citizens, we have a right to know when we are being observed and why.

That is the view of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data, which has issued guidelines to CCTV operators. To protect against unwarranted monitoring, it contends that there has to be greater transparency. Notices should be displayed prominently showing that cameras have been installed and the amount of time images and videos can be kept must be limited. The message is straightforward: such equipment has obvious benefits, but should be used appropriately so as not to infringe on privacy.

As obvious as this may seem, though, having authorities, businesses and individuals follow the guidelines is not so easy. For one, no one knows how many CCTV cameras there are in our city. The Sunday Morning Post has roughly estimated, based on figures provided by police, government departments and the MTR Corp, that there are at least 50,000, or one for every 140 people. But it is only a guess; the cameras are so small and inexpensive that getting an accurate count is challenging.

There are downsides to their indiscriminate use, among them allowing for the collecting of potentially sensitive data and infringing on civil liberties when they are placed where protesters gather. But while the concerns are understandable, there is also no dispute that CCTV cameras can help keep people and property safe. They also can be key to solving crimes, last year's Boston marathon bombing and the terror attacks on the London Underground in 2005 being notable examples. The guidelines are a good starting point, although genuine transparency and accountability will come only through properly enforced rules and regulations.