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Argument: Crime camera privacy, Big Brother concerns are exaggerated

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Anna Claridge. "Cameras a fact of life". The Press (New Zealand). July 29, 2006. - A quick glimpse at the facts would have most agreeing society is inching closer to the predictions offered in George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984.

Orwell foresaw that by the year 1984, humans would live in a world in which a person's every action would be monitored by "thought police".

They would use video cameras and microphones, and dissenters would be ruthlessly suppressed by a dictator known as Big Brother.

The reality television show of the same name has hijacked the term somewhat and Orwell's fictitious dictator is missing from modern life, but based on the facts, today, in 2006, we are as close as ever to his literary conclusion.

In Britain, the prevalence of cameras monitoring daily life has reached epidemic proportions. British research shows more than 4 million cameras operate in the country and the average Brit will be caught on film 300 times a day.

The average Kiwi is likely to be caught on camera at least 12 times a day -- from the four main camera user groups, police, councils, retailers and private residents.

The streets of Christchurch are riddled with cameras -- 26 all-seeing eyes monitor the central city and bus exchange -- while figures show at least 30% of businesses also have security cameras.

This week, Christchurch celebrated 10 years since the first crime cameras were placed in the city.

It was a move that sparked controversy back in 1996 and civil liberties groups even brought experts to Christchurch from the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to argue against the camera installations.

Cantabrians, they claimed, would lose the right to protect their privacy.

Nigel Waters, from the Australian commission, said surveillance cameras had been used in Australia for 12 years but there was no evidence to show they had prevented serious crime.

By allowing cameras with no proven crime-fighting record to monitor activity in the streets, the public were "undergoing a barrage of technological intrusions into their personal affairs", he said.

The rules governing how and when cameras could be used were set out in the Privacy Act and police also set up their own guidelines on safe operation.

In short, unless there was a good reason for not telling people a camera was operating, then some form of notification was required. Tapes needed to be kept secure and information recorded on tape could not be disclosed to other sources without good reason.

Ten years down the track, and after the initial hysteria, the presence of cameras in Christchurch is largely unchallenged.

The pictures are viewed by a roster of about 60 volunteers in a room at Christchurch Central Police Station. A small joystick on a keyboard allows them to rotate the cameras or zoom in on people hundreds of metres away.

And their crime-fighting record speaks for itself. In the past decade, police camera footage from Christchurch has been used as vital evidence in several murder trials, rapes, serious assaults and most recently the high-profile stabbing of a preacher in Cathedral Square.

Retail cameras have also had an affect on crime. Remember the grainy image of murdered prostitute Suzie Sutherland caught on camera in her final hours, buying food at a convenience store? Or just two weeks ago, the last moment Wellington murder victim Tony Stanlake was seen alive, caught through the lens of a closed- circuit television camera at a Bunnings Hardware store?

No-one objected to those images making the front pages of newspapers around the country, so what has happened to the critics and naysayers? Where were they when the police celebrated 10 years of camera monitoring in Christchurch?

Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff notes in her most recent annual report that surveillance camera issues are still raising public concerns. The commissioner's office still gets regular inquiries about camera operations and what rights a person is entitled too if they are filmed.

But according to a public survey commissioned by Shroff's office this year, it seems the issue of video surveillance has been overtaken by other technology.

In the survey, camera surveillance was rated by the public as the least concerning "privacy issue" in New Zealand today.

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