Surveillance expert critical of Wellington's CCTV and sensor system

On the corner of Cuba amd Ghuznee Street (Newshub)
On the corner of Cuba amd Ghuznee Street (Newshub)

A surveillance expert is sceptical of Wellington City Council's surveillance network, which is currently trialling sensor technology on Cuba Mall in addition to its CCTV cameras.

Media studies lecturer and author of The Post-Snowden Era Dr Kathleen Kuehn told Newshub there are many reasons to be concerned with the programme, called Safe City Living Lab.

She said these kinds of data capturing programmes have the potential to criminalise non-criminal behaviour, and was uncomfortable about how the collected data might be used.

Safe City Living Lab is a collaboration between the council, Japanese technology firm NEC and a number of central government agencies, local retailers and residents.

The sensor technology can detect acoustic activity like screaming or breaking glass, or monitor visual activity like 'beggars' or fighting on the street.

Wellington City Council safety advisor Julia Hamilton says the programme's purpose is "to better understand our streets and the social systems in them."

The sensors could even be programmed to send out alerts to agencies when certain activities are identified, but Wellington City Council are yet to implement this.

Surveillance expert says it's important to be skeptical

Dr Kuehn said when these types of data programmes are introduced  "Sleeping rough, "begging", congregating in groups, laughing and engaging loudly with friends is doomed to be normalised as "inappropriate" behaviour."

"There's only so many times a cop's going to want to rush down to Cuba Street just to find out sensors had picked up a group of rowdy kids hanging out in a public place before the Police decide that such acts of play are a public nuisance or drain on resources."

She said there are increasingly fewer public places that aren't taken over by commercially-oriented businesses, and new CCTV and censor technologies "threaten to criminalise buskers, young people or others who enjoy hanging out in public."

Dr Kuehn questioned whether security was the primary reason that the devices were being installed, and suggested it was "increasing downtown Wellington as a more commercially viable space to be."

She said it's important to be sceptical about the programme, asking how the data will be stored and used, who stands to profit and what social behaviours could be deemed abnormal.

"As studies show, the presence of ubiquitous CCTV can actually suggest to people that there's a need for security that in turn, drives suspicion and fear."

Wellington City Council say the sensors monitor trends and patterns, not individuals

Ms Hamilton says the information the sensors collect can be combined with other data and the existing CCTV cameras.

"We use this information to respond and plan to emerging issues and trends," she says.

Individuals cannot be identified from the sensors, and conversations can't be detected.

A spokesperson for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner told Newshub that their main concerns with the council's system, that individuals could be identified, have been addressed.

However the office is concerned about agencies being overly reliant on information that they gain from 'big data'.

"It's important to remember that it's not necessarily a complete picture it's only the information that the sensor was able to collect.

We'd urge agencies to use caution when making any decisions based on this kind of system."

Cuba Street beggar is supportive of the programme

Rex Thorndon, who is out on Cuba Street most days asking the public for spare change, is supportive of the council's programme.

"It's a good idea I reckon," he said about the CCTV and sensor programme, and he isn't worried about the surveillance.

"What I do doesn't break the law."

Mr Thorndon has a home, but he asks for money to make ends meet for himself and his friends who are struggling - he says none of them get enough money on the benefit.

"When I was younger no one looked after me, now I'm older I'm looking after people my age, we're all in dire straits."

He thinks it's a good thing that the council is able to monitor where people are and what they're doing, with the potential to offer targeted support.