Security cameras are a rational choice, but are they a solution?

By Luong Van Lam   December 2, 2019 | 05:40 pm PT
Surveillance systems are an understandable choice in an increasingly crime-prone world, but their ability to solve problems that create insecurity is uncertain.
Luong Van Lam

Luong Van Lam

My parents recently spent VND12 million ($517) to install cameras inside and outside our family home in the countryside. Dad took a step further by placing a broken one near our chicken coop, just to fake out potential thieves.

"We just installed some cameras," Mom told me on the phone while I was at work. "Four of them - inside the house, in the front, out on the street, even at the back," she said. She even sent me the password for a mobile app which would allow me to access the cameras remotely, saying I should check them out once in a while to check the house in case she and Dad were out.

"There's only two of you and a few chickens, why spend so much?" I asked.

"They bring us peace of mind," Dad replied. "There are so many thieves these days. Our neighbor even has eight cameras."

My parents weren't the only ones going paranoid about security and installing cameras. My colleagues, friends and so many people I know have started to buy cameras or other similar surveillance systems. Some use them to watch their kids at school. Others use them to watch if their housekeepers steal anything while they aren't at home.

Everywhere you go, you feel stared at. Every street corner, supermarket, hotel, restaurant, you name it. Only the stares are not from people, but cameras.

There's a reason surveillance cameras are becoming more and more popular: too many cases of murder, child abuse and all manners of crime are featured on TV and social media these days. And people start having trust issues.

In my Master’s thesis, I researched the difference in the intention of using child locating devices in Vietnam and Holland. I found that compared to Dutch parents, Vietnamese trust locating devices much more when it comes to ensuring their children's safety while they aren't around.

Why? Apparently, it's because traffic safety and social trust in Vietnam is lower than in Holland. A 2015 global report showed that about 24.5 people out of every 100,000 die in traffic accidents in Vietnam, while the figure is only 3.4 in Holland. Another social trust study by Lars Torpe and Henrik Lolle in 2011 ranked Vietnam at 25th out of 52 countries while Holland was ranked 9th.

How we perceive and use technologies reflect the society we live in. In an environment where people continually experience insecurity or distrust, it is understandable that they would cling to surveillance technologies as a tool that gives them the feeling of safety and protection.

However, the trust itself should be studied objectively. The feeling of trust is subjective, but the concept of safety lends itself to concrete evidence and statistics. One tends to trust and spend more money on "clean" veggies at the supermarket, even though one cannot know if they are really cleaner than those sold in wet markets. But there is a feeling of greater safety in buying from supermarkets.

It is undeniable that we feel surveillance technologies can help limit criminal or indecent behaviors. But has there been a study showing a causal relationship between using such technologies and reducing inappropriate behavior? A report by U.K.-based privacy and civil liberty non-profit Big Brother Watch has shown that in London, which has one of the most wide-reaching camera systems in the world, there has been no apparent reduction in crime rates ever since the cameras first went into operation in the 1980s.

And even if cameras could deter the bad guys from breaking the law, there's no guarantee they would make our lives safer or better. Cameras are only there to relieve the symptoms, not cure the disease.

This is worth thinking about as administrations like Saigon move ahead with a project worth trillions of dong to install facial recognition cameras in public places to maintain "order." Do they have any data to demonstrate if this move will reduce crime or help police find more criminals? (VND1 trillion = $43 million).

So if someone asks me if I install cameras at home or send my kids to a school with cameras, I would say yes. Because I, too, need that sense of safety and security.

But once they are established, people will get busy in trying to avoid their scrutiny. Crime is a social problem, and if it is not dealt with and solved at that level, there is not going to be reduction in its incidence.

*Luong Van Lam is a Vietnamese media specialist. The opinions expressed are her own.

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