• Sun
  • Dec 21, 2014
  • Updated: 6:18am
NewsHong Kong

50,000 CCTV cameras in Hong Kong's skies causing 'intrusion' into private lives

Housing Authority leads the surveillance pack with more than 20,000 CCTVs, bearing out warning of everyday intrusions into people's lives

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 March, 2014, 4:46am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 March, 2014, 11:30am

CCTV surveillance cameras have become such a common feature of Hong Kong that you barely notice them. But rest assured, they notice you.

The privacy watchdog says the "increasingly widespread" use of closed-circuit television creates an "inevitable intrusion into the privacy of individuals".

To test its concerns, the Sunday Morning Post took a trip from Causeway Bay to Chek Lap Kok airport to find out just how much being watched has become a part of everyday life in one of the busiest cities in the world.

The Post counted at least 100 cameras during the 80-minute trip, which involved visiting street-level shops and shopping malls and using several types of transport.

Professor Andrew Adams, an information ethics expert at Meiji University in Tokyo, arrived at the same number in a similar study over the course of a day in the Japanese capital. Since 2005, Adams has studied the social and ethical implications of CCTVs.

There was limited research on any direct links between a high saturation of CCTVs and a low crime rate, he said, but this did not stop people from using surveillance cameras as a blanket solution.

"Politicians and police seem to present it as a magic anti-crime mechanism without saying exactly how it helps," he said.

Most operators adopt a one-size-fits-all model, which is often not cost effective and may infringe on privacy. Adams called on governments to develop a set of scenarios and the appropriate system standards.

For instance, if a camera is meant to monitor activities at a late-night drinking establishment, it can probably be turned off during the day.

"Operators need to look at what the primary purpose is and how we can achieve this goal appropriately," he said. "As an ethicist, I'm looking at the unwanted impact of such surveillance."

Adams said the resulting images were often a helpful tool in criminal investigations, but having cameras in public and private places did not necessarily prevent crime. In one case, the CCTV images did not prevent a murder from happening.

Based on figures obtained from various government departments that operated CCTVs, the Post has made a conservative estimate that the city has at least 50,000 such cameras.

A number of the departments declined to disclose cameras' locations, while most private entities refused to reveal any details, citing "security reasons". But the transparency of this increasingly ubiquitous form of physical surveillance is crucial in order to protect the public from unwarranted monitoring, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data says.

The privacy watchdog released guidelines stating the public should be "explicitly informed that they are subject to CCTV surveillance".

Last year, it found that the MTR Corporation, which has more than 4,000 CCTV cameras installed at its stations and on trains, failed to put up obvious notices telling people they were being monitored.

The company also kept the data recorded for longer than needed, the office said.

The Housing Authority operates more than 20,000 CCTV cameras, while the Immigration Department has about 1,000 placed at its 12 border control points and the police, about 220. The Hospital Authority has 5,400 cameras at its public hospitals and clinics.

At the Legislative Council complex in Admiralty, 443 CCTV cameras are in operation, with videos kept for "a specified period of time" for security purposes.

The Customs and Excise Department has about 700 cameras installed at checkpoints. It keeps video records for up to 90 days and has not received any complaints about the cameras in the past three years.

Architect and associate professor Wallace Chang Ping-hung, from Chinese University's school of architecture, has looked extensively at public open space in private developments and urban design in Hong Kong.

"CCTV is a privacy nuisance as there is oversurveillance in most public areas in Hong Kong," Chang said, though he recognised its usefulness in securing high-risk areas such as banks and also in monitoring traffic.

The privacy watchdog said CCTV use in the public and private places of Hong Kong for security reasons or for monitoring illegal acts had become "increasingly widespread".


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This article is now closed to comments

It is always the same argument used to protest against CCTVs. Crime rate vs. Number of CCTV. Of course the criminals once they know there is a CCTV camera installed in a place don't want to be caught and it and avoid such places. They are not stupid. But the CCTV camera will make it more difficult for the criminals acting in public and force them to find more difficult ways to do their crimes.
Also, CCTVs, in their function, always provide the proof you need and the leads you need for investigations. And privacy. In public there is no privacy. Either you eradicate all the people on the street, for you to be alone to have privacy in public or you wear a mask on your face all the time for no one can regognise you. Otherwise, you are always under observation by by-passer. With CCTV or not, there is no privacy in public.
You feel comforted by them now, but wait till 2047.
And if they put cameras in their homes to monitor the maids, that is fine!
CCtV cameras can spy, yes. But they also can help to solve crime. Especially in public spaces. Remember the woman who reported her baby lost and was kidnapped by Mainlanders? Without a CCTV camera catching her days before with a stroller without baby leading to the truth that her child died days ago, everybody would still looking for the child and accusing Mainlanders coming to HK to steal babies. Yes, it was just a camera from a compound security. In General CCTV cameras can have the function to prevent and to solve crime. And honestly, in public, what discretion and secret in public do I have to be afraid to be caught on the camera? As long the cameras stay out of my home, it should be ok if installed in public (ok, not for Albert Ho). And if I want a camera in my home, I will install it by myself. To be honest, many do to check and spy on their domestic helper.
Many commenters here don't even seem to have read the article:
'There was limited research on any direct links between a high saturation of CCTVs and a low crime rate, he said, but this did not stop people from using surveillance cameras as a blanket solution.'
In more simple words: there is no proof that CCTV increases security. However it is obvious that it diminishes privacy. One should never trust blindly in the government to do the right thing. If they have the data, someone will find a way to to abuse it.
Actually, it also provides a great sense of security to the general public because it can catch a lot more criminal activities and the criminal's faces when necessary..........what's there to intrude in open public space?
People should not laugh at Ms. Lam. Constant Counting Disorder (CCD) is a serious condition that affects many in our society. Not just journalists but also every weekend protest organizers and even the police spend huge amounts of their time counting. But be that as it may I bet HK comes nowhere near the number of CCTV cameras in London. (341 characters, 60 words).
Whenever I am in a building lobby or elevator, there is a CCTV. I am not complaining!!!
CCTV in public places doesn't invade privacy or bother me whatsoever. On the contrary, it gives me a sense of security; provided that all the recorded images / videos are handled by securities that respect others privacy and be deleted periodically.
Don't always use basic privacy right as a shield. What are you afraid of if you simply doing legal things out there in the public. Why are you so afraid that your image get recorded in one of the CCTV camera. There are so many CCTV and there are so much data. No body is going to bother to look at a stranger who is doing normal stuff. However, if there is a crime, it will be a very useful piece of evidence. This is just a normal way of protecting our citizens. Take a look at US. It always points fingers at other nations about human right and privacy concerns but itself conducts massive spying operations on other nations and its own citizens. There is no basic privacy right in US so don't use it as an excuse to blame the normal usage of CCTV in HK.



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